Thursday, March 03, 2016

"include the first 3-5 pages with your query"

1) The main character of my WIP does not appear on the pages until the second chapter. Should I:

a. include the actual first 5-10 pages? Because those first pages are just a sample of my writing style and ability to hook the reader anyway.

b. include the first five pages of the second chapter? Because this action includes the MC and will make more sense to an agent who just read my query.

c. do something else? I don't think I should rewrite the query to include the subplot introduced in the first chapter. Nor do I want to rearrange the WIP so the protagonist starts the action. But I am open to those options if you have a different opinion.

2) The first few pages of my WIP have footnotes that are translations of French phrases in the text. I think they're understandable without the footnotes, but beta readers requested them. Since I will put sample pages in the body of my email below the query, should I try to incorporate the footnotes (maybe with asterisks or something)?

1. The correct answer is d:  include the first 5-10 pages (or whatever the agent asked for) and at the bottom of your query write "the main character is introduced on page X" so the agent knows not to expect Felix Buttonweezer even though the query is about him.

2. You can't have footnotes in an email. The format will make me you insane. Most of us understand the rudiments of French (merde! merci! bien sur!) and if we can intuit the meaning from context you'll be fine.

To support this opinion, go take a look at any episode of the late, lamented tv show Firefly in which the characters curse in Chinese. You don't need to know what they're saying to know what they mean.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Believe me when I say if my husband Felix says, "oh prune," or you are such a "prune for brains," or "prune out of luck," I know exactly what he is saying and it has nothing to do with probiotics.
Hope you all do not have a pruney day.
Sincerely Bettywith2Ts Buttonweezer

Megan V said...

Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand. I don't care, I'm still free, you can't take the sky from me. Take me out to the black, tell them I ain't comin' back. Burn the land and boil the sea, you can't take the sky from me. There's no place I can be, since I've found Serenity. But you can't take the sky from me.

sorry, couldn't resist!

Opie: Why not take the footnotes and turn them into a nice index at the back of the manuscript? They're just as handy there and an index at the back of the book will create less of a hassle when the requests start flowin' in.

french sojourn said...

How to negotiate queries....

french sojourn said...

Bettywith2t's I would never dream of calling you "Pruney", what with the little passel running about.


Jason Magnason said...

I haven't queried anyone but Janet, and even then not officially; just through query shark, so I have very few examples to draw experiences from.

Having said that, do Agents ask for pages in the submission process to be included in the query because they want to read pages, or because they feel a query isn't enough?

DLM said...

Ohh, now this is a good one - often times, the questions here are like many advice columns; we/the OP know the answer, but need validation or don't want to admit it. This is completely new, though. And a simple solution. Hurrah!

Lisa Bodenheim said...

When I first met my crit partners and we exchanged our manuscripts, the very first thing they agreed on--take out the pronunciation guide to my protag's name. I remember Georgette Heyer in "These Old Shades" used smatterings of French. She didn't have footnotes and I don't know French (sorry, this Midwesterner learned Spanish and a bit of German and Amslan) but I was able to intuit.

And on another front (if readers are curious to literally know the meaning) there's always google translation. Hey....quit with the throwing tomatoes at me. They've turned into hard little prune balls after sitting all winter.

Jennifer D said...

The OP has referred to a WIP, not a manuscript. OP, are you querying something that isn't finished yet, or have I misunderstood? Do you simply mean it's a work-in-progress because no editor at a publishing house has seen it yet and told you what they think you need to do with it?
It's my understanding that, for fiction anyway, one should only query a finished product that is your best work. . . unless the rules or the terminology changed while I wasn't looking. Maybe someone here can clear up my confusion.

DLM said...

Colin, is Felix the Spanish Inquisition ... ?

Jennifer, I noticed that too ...

I used a format other histfic authors use, somewhat modeled on Colleen McCullough's glossary style author's notes (intro on a page and entries excerpted on my blog - The only time I've seen footnotes in a novel is when it's an actual narrative device: the novel is meant to read like a report or historical text, etc. There are creative ways to incorporate this kind of callout. But a footnote in a novel slams a reader straight out of the story, generally. It ain't a textbook.

Colin Smith said...

This very question (the one about MC not appearing until chapter 2) occurred to me with regard to querying my WiP (when that day comes). I didn't occur to me you could simply mention in the query not to expect MC until the next chapter. (BTW, nobody expects Felix Buttonweezer)

For fiction, I have grown in the conviction that the point of your novel is not to impress with your language skills. If your target audience is English-speaking, then don't assume any proficiency in a foreign language (a sad but reasonable assumption). If the meaning of the French cannot be intuited by the context, or is not given by another character, then translate your character's words and tell (or show) that s/he's speaking a foreign language. The only reason I can think of for including untranslated French is because what the character said doesn't matter--it's just for texture.

And here's Hank's link:

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I'm working to fix this in my won work, but if the first pages are a "sample of your writing style" vs. "what the book is about", perhaps you should rethink your first pages.

I do agree, if the French is contextual, you're fine (and Firefly is an amazing example for this!). But then, I get frustrated with people/readers who don't understand what I think should be generally understandable, and then I get reminded that jokes are for other people. Not everybody is in my head, or knows what I know.

Jason: some agents just want the query, and they'll get back to you if they're interested enough. But I think they want pages so they can, y'know, read your book!

Laura Mary said...

I loved the creative swearing in Firefly - often wondered if they had to bleep it out in China, or if they were just calling each other prunes!

Colin Smith said...

Janet: You gave Felix three ts (Butttonweezer). Is he feeling left out of the 2Ns, 1i thing?

Diane: His chief weapon is surprise. Surprise and fear are his chief weapons...! :)

Colin Smith said...

Linking tip: if your link is "", add the "http://" to it when you create a link in the comments (i.e., "").

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

The Shark has invoked Firefly, the OP has invoked what sounds like a prologue, I predict a chaotic comment thread.

I'd ditch translations (footnotes) in any version. Your readers are vast and will be able to work with it.

Janet's advice about giving a warning note re: when protagonist is introduced is interesting, I would never have thought to do this. In truth, I'd see if your 2nd chapter can do equally well with enticing... then when (yes, I said when, not if) you sign with an agent, you can talk about the viability of starting with that original 1st chapter/prologue after all.

Susan said...

Further reasons to love this place: fellow Browncoats! Janet's example of Firefly is a perfect example world-building and storytelling, even in a woefully short episode run. The culture isn't an info-dump, but we're plopped right into it organically, made to feel like we're part of the world, too. This is his genius. But I digress...

In the book "The Miniaturist," the author uses a lot of Dutch phrases and references to 17th century Amsterdam as part of her story. Truthfully, I ended up ignoring most of the literal meanings of the foreign phrases and references because I could figure out the general context from the surrounding scene. But when I finished the story, I found there was a helpful index at the back of the book that explained those references I was more curious about--however, those were few and far between. I'd already figured out most of them due to the way the author had constructed her scenes.

I'm not a fan of footnotes in fiction. If I'm engrossed in a story, I'm not going to pause and read the footnote before continuing. I want to stay in the story--I want to start on the first page and read until the last (or until my dog takes the book from me because she has to go out. True story). If the foreign language absolutely can't be explained (or answered/responded to) by a character in a more organic fashion, Megan's idea of an index is ideal. "The Miniaturist" is a good example of how this can work.

Amy Schaefer said...

Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus books do a lovely job with footnotes. The POV is 1st person, and Bartimaeus uses the footnotes to make snarky asides or further explain his actions/reactions. Importantly, you can skip the footnotes altogether without missing the main story. Jasper Fforde also uses footnotes to good effect in the Thursday Next series, in his spec fic kind of way.

Both of these authors use footnotes as a device. I think it would be jarring to read traditional footnotes in a manuscript. As a reader, I'd prefer to get the message through the context of the story, rather than with sprinkled clarifications, footnoted or otherwise. Opie, consider whether a little rewriting can solve your problem. And trust your reader. In a way, we're all literary detectives. Let us pick up on the clues.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Well, prune it all, I miss Firefly. Now I am sad. I really, really loved that show.

Opie, follow the shark's advice and each agency's guidelines to the T. If they say 1st 5 pages, then first 5 pages it is. Simply make sure your book begins where it should. Generally, prologues are frowned upon. Make sure something happens. My books starts with antagonist, but my query in its last form was all about my precious thirteen year-old Horse of the Apocalypse riding cowgirl.

Even if none of your main characters (protagonist or otherwise) appears in your 1st few pages, don't sweat it. I just read Eric Rickstad's The Silent Girls. His first 4 pages are blockbuster amazing but none of the book's principal characters appear. I imagine book deal was struck just on strength of those harrowing first pages. They proved writer's ability to snag reader in a steel grip. As long as the book starts in the right place and something happens, you should be good to go.

And I will echo the ‘don’t put footnotes in your fiction’ crowd. The exception being that your name is Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaimon. Then you can do it, but only then and only if they are so funny that they can make your reader projectile laugh coffee out of their noses. Most of my Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon book collection is sadly coffee and whiskey stained, and it is entirely their fault. Translating French does not qualify for this exception.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Okay, so get out Lisa’s prune balls.
Because I know how you guys love prologues, how about prologues and first pages, (hey that ball hit me in the eye). I took mine out, moved it deeper into the story and when my crit partners read they suggested it be put up front, so back it went.
Prologue is such a dirty word to some agents. I am wondering if I should simply send the first five pages of chapter one, and if do, do I mention there’s a prologue, or at the risk of alienating a potential agent who abhors prologues, do I send the prologue and mention it’s a prologue or not mention that the book actually has one at all?
Prune balls are flying at me like horizontal hail during Twister. Going back in my woodland creature hole now. Nuts instead of balls would have been nice.

Jason Magnason said...

Thanks Jen.

I set my book down for a month, read Steven Kings On Writing, and Elements of Style as suggested. I went back to my book and .... OMG I loved it! It was like reading a book written by someone else, and it was good. I mean good like I want to keep reading.

So what do I do? I pitch it to a writing group, and read them the first five pages; they are blown away. Granted I am an operatic tenor, and love to do character voices, so my reading is well received.

However, as Janet can tell you from my query on Query Shark, my querying is far from adequate. Although my revisions have not been posted yet, I have revised, but I am not sure if those revisions are any good.

The thing that I am uncertain of is: am I ready to get a request for MS. I, like my book, others like my book. My question is will a professional Agent like it the same way they did?

Is there some secrete to this whole thing? I don't know. Janet please don't throw me out. I'm sorry for being so long winded. I'm just excited about my book and want to share it with everyone, but don't know if It's ready yet.

DLM said...

We may be letting our assumptions dictate our responses here. Prologue is not mentioned in the question.

The non-appearance of an MC in the opening pages does NOT necessarily indicate prologue. See also: Harry Lime.

Timothy Lowe said...

Openings are so important. I'm just beginning to learn how much rewriting they require. I glanced at the opening lines of "West of Sunset" by Stewart O'Nan yesterday: "That spring he holed up in the Smokies, in a tired resort hotel by the asylum so he could be closer to her."

And then I had finished the first chapter, the photocopies I had been about to run still in my hand. By then I knew I was going to finish the book.

There's a reason they ask for the first 3-5 pages. There's a reason why you should spend a LOT of time on them.

Matt Adams said...

a) I'd rewrite the first few pages to get the MC in, see if there's a way to get them engaged so the reader -- who is expecting the MC since you write a query about him/her -- can get into the story as soon as possible. Even if you can get away with it in the query, editors are going to be looking to get involved early, too.

b) or you could send as much as you need to send in order to show the story moving. At my last conference, the agents who were teaching a course on querying and all things agent-y (if you get the chance and want to see Taos, that is a great conference and a great workshop. Usually in July) very strongly told us to, no matter what the guidelines said, send enough so the story gets started and the scene completed. If they re liking the pages they've got, they won't be angry for you finishing your scene. That doesn't mean send 40 when they've asked for 3, but these agents said no one will be angry if it takes 10 to finish your scene. And if they are, you probably don't want them, anyway.

c) If the dialogue in french is crucial to the story, write it in English and say the character said it in French. if it's just there as an accent, then leave it be. Using footnotes in fiction book is risky, so write around them if possible.

Megan V said...

Just to correct myself—clearly posting at 4 in the morning is not ideal— when I said index, I meant a glossary. Uff da.

As to the whole prologue debate, I say 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'

There's only one way to find out if a prologue works if starting elsewhere is more effective. Readers.

And remember you wrote a manuscript!

"We've done the impossible, and that makes us mighty"

Celia Reaves said...

OMG, Firefly. When it was cancelled, I was all, "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!"

Second, back on topic. The thing that struck me in the original post was that OP considered the option of sending the first five pages of Chapter 2, since that's where the protagonist first appears. This made me wonder whether the characters, action, and setting would be clear starting at Chapter 2, and if they are, well then--it seems like that's where the book should begin. Of course, I might be completely off base, and there might be very good reasons for beginning where it does, but it's something the author should give serious thought to.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I am going to risk Lisa's prune balls with Carolynn. Perhaps, the OP does not have a prologue, but lots of writers include them. And that may or may not be why main character is absent in first few pages.

Many revisions ago, in a galaxy far, far way, my WUS once had a prologue. My workshop poo-pood with much pruning the idea as my original prologue did not move the story. I removed it. So many drafts later, my beta readers implored me to take some backstory elements in chapter 3 or 4, I don't remember, and fashion a prologue out of it. I did. Beta readers, bless their lovely little hearts, loved it. Editor types not so much. So I lived, learned, revised and now my prologue is my first chapter. I had simply "begun" my book in wrong place. So, Carolynn, is it possible that your so-called prologue is really your first chapter? Feel free to throw prune balls at me. Just a thought.

S.P. Bowers said...

How often do books start with someone other than the main character? I can think of a few, though it was only a page or two before the MC was introduced. And sometimes that felt like a betrayal if I had become interested in the situation or characters and then had to shift my thinking.

Colin Smith said...

I think Janet herself has suggested that the way to avoid the stigma of the prologue is to call it "chapter 1." When the novel is eventually sold, you could say to your editor, "You know, that first chapter kind of reads like a prologue. Why don't we make it a prologue?" :)

Colin Smith said...

Oh, and for those who wonder how on earth you might legitimately write a novel whose MC doesn't appear until chapter 2, here's how. You write a mystery where meeting the MC isn't the most dramatic part, but the committing of the crime. Hence, you start with the murder (or whatever) to excite and entice the reader, and then bring your MC in after. There are literary examples of this technique (I read one recently but I can't remember what it was!!), but Columbo jumps to mind.

Dena Pawling said...

Lots of mysteries begin with the crime, and the protagonist isn't introduced until chapter 2. I wouldn't necessarily call the first chapter the prologue. The example that first came to mind is Mr. Mercedes, altho Stephen King can start his stories anywhere he wants and they'll still hit the best seller lists.

On the other hand, I re-wrote one of my WIPs [dual POV] because I initially had it starting with POV of the girl, but when I got to the end, I realized the MC and character arc was really the boy. So I wrote a new chapter 1 in POV of the boy. My initial chapter 1 became chapter 2.

I know several phrases in Chinese because in a previous lifetime I worked with a Japanese lady, and her parents would curse at each other in Chinese [it being the inferior language in their opinion] so my co-worker would also curse in Chinese. No, I've never practiced my Chinese in public =)

To her credit, she also taught me several insults in Japanese. I don't practice those in public either. But I CAN count to ten.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

Colin, you say "If your target audience is English-speaking, then don't assume any proficiency in a foreign language (a sad but reasonable assumption)."

I highly disagree that this is a reasonable assumption. This is what gets white writers, agents, editors, and publishing leaders into trouble and why we lack diverse voices. Our target audience, also, should be who would like to read about our characters and their experiences, not what languages they speak or know proficiently.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin, what you describe is precisely the deal with The Silent Girls which I mentioned when I was still posting legally.

It is basically a gumshoe detective book that involves a missing girl and possible serial murderer. It begins with a crime. I have read many, many books that do not begin with main character. Prunes, Harry Potter doesn't really appear in his books until the very end of chapter one. I do not think it is all that unusual for main character to debut after first chapter.

french sojourn said...

Wonderful language on Firefly!

Forth times a charm....

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

Oh! All of you mentioning crime/detective/suspense/intrigue novels and how they frequently don't start with the protagonist make an excellent point. Those are not my hard-hitting reading genres so I'd forgotten about them. I'd bet with these kinds of books, though, one might not necessarily need the "the protagonist enters story on page X", but sure can't hurt.

Susan said...

SP Bowers: Your comment brings to mind two books I've read recently that pulled me out of the story by changing characters/POVs. The first was "Station Eleven," which I dearly wanted to love. The first part of the book, I was enthralled--the voice was captivating, I was hooked by the action, and I couldn't wait to see where it was going. But then it shifted perspectives, and it lost a lot of the voice and momentum for me. I couldn't finish it. One of these days, I want to give it another shot, but I just couldn't get into the rest of the book on the first read.

The second instance of this was "The Fifth Wave," which I also had high hopes for. Loved the first few chapters, but then not only did it shift character POVs, it shifted to third person. It was jarring and confusing and, again, lost the momentum and the voice that had originally pulled the story along.

There are a lot of books that are able to pull this off seamlessly, so I'm not sure what it was about these two that didn't work for me. Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" is a great example of having multiple POVs (1 MC with close secondary characters) whose perspectives really enrich the story. I think the difference is that it's all connected here, whereas with the others, it felt disjointed to me, like I was reading different stories within the same book, when I wanted to stick with the original story.

I guess that's my question for the OP--are you starting with a character that readers will invest in and then jumping to your MC? Is there a bridge between the two so that readers are willing to make that jump in perspective and emotional investment with you? How does the first chapter connect to your second? These are questions only you can really answer.

InkStainedWench said...

Here's my chance to bring up a nagging question:

Is there a verb for the process of getting to the bottom of a dense page of type, only to discover an unexpected footnote, and then having to comb back through the text to find the footnote indicator and what it refers to?

(Other than "to squint" or "to curse")

Julie Weathers said...

Oh my stars and garters! I love this topic.

This response will be over 100 words.

If you've done your job as a writer, you should not need the footnotes to translate the French. There are ways to show what it means. Context, thought, reaction, etc.

I did a blue pencil at Surrey with Chris Humphreys and against my better judgment, took a few pages of Rain Crow, which is in rough draft. The scene is with the male POV character after the first battle of Manassas. He has gone to water his horse in Bull Run, but the horse refuses to drink because the water runs red with blood. Then he notices a cloaked rider. In the horror of the setting he imagines all kinds of things. It's a young Federal vivandière who got left behind in the rout. These were women who went to the battles to help with the wounded.

Chris said one way to introduce foreign phrases or historical details without having to explain or educate people is to have someone think something. "What the hell is she doing out here by herself? This is no place for a woman."

Then when she says she's looking for water for the wounded and got separated from her unit, it finishes explaining who and what she is.

Or you could have someone respond to a foreign phrase with the thought, "He thinks that vase is blue? Is he color blind?"

At a writing forum there was a gentleman who wanted comments on some of his work. He had a horrible habit of going on for paragraphs in Spanish and then repeating verbatim the same thing in English. We suggested he use small bits of Spanish for flavor. He didn't want to do that. The characters were Spanish. Well, yes, but most of the readers aren't and that word count is going to double with long passages written in Spanish and then translated to English. He refused to see it was frustrating to read.

Firefly is the perfect example. Who hasn't had a piece of gos se day?

DLM said...

InkyWench: citation triangulation? :)

S.D.King said...

The fact that beta readers requested the translations would indicate that there is not enough context for the foreign phrases.

Each time an agent or contest requests 5-10 pages, it causes me to rewrite. I have rewritten that first chapter about fifty times and this week I rewrote it again for a contest limited it to 125 words and I realized that my first 125 words were too wordy.

I think the discipline of Flash Fiction Fridays has helped me greatly to distill words.

I decided this week that I am ready to query again. Much stronger manuscript than last time I queried.Yesterday I almost cried at my own ending and my beta reader said she cried. At least something struck a cord.

Adib Khorram said...

I will also throw my Coat in the Brown pile. It's incredible how enduring those thirteen episodes of television (and one movie) have become.

I can take or leave footnotes in fiction. THE LORD OF THE RINGS included very few, and they were almost endearingly academic in nature.

Jason: If you're worried about whether the book is "ready," I'd suggest finding a critique partner or two who write in your genre and getting their feedback—not on the first five pages, but on the whole novel. A great first five pages means nothing if everything falls apart on page six.

Craig said...

Addendums to a query should have the same purpose as the query. That is to entice the reader to want more. Since we are all different you have to use your own judgement in this.

I knew this when I remodeled and repainted the book I will soon query. Page 5 1/4 has the protagonist being told that beside four other floaters (floating bodies) that the FBI hoked up a gang killing story on; there are four girls missing in Putnam County.

Page 10 1/2 has the Protag giving his statement to the Sheriff. He asks as much as tells and it ends with "Any omens or portents pointing to white slavery?"

Do not alter pages to send to an Agent. If they then ask for a full and spot huge differences you will not get the chance to explain. It will be a breach of contract.

Remember always to be enticing in your query package.

Jason Magnason said...

Thanks Adib Khorram. I appreciate the feedback and advice.

Firefly was epic.

'nuff said.

LynnRodz said...

Jason, believe me you're not alone. I think many of us wonder if our MS is ready. I know I do.

For those who think OP may need to rethink where to begin his story, Janet wasn't fazed by it so perhaps it's all right to have the MC come in on chapter two. It seemed odd to me at first, but I'm sure there are great examples of that happening. I just can't think of any at the moment.

Personally when it comes to footnotes, I don't like them in fiction. I welcome them when I read books on quantum physics. Otherwise, I would be lost, but that goes without saying. In fiction, I'm too curious not to read them even if they take me out of a story so I prefer not to have them.

A lot of authors when they use foreign words and you cannot intuit the meaning simply repeat the phrase in English. I think it works well and doesn't sound repetitive. In my WIP, the characters are mostly all French so sometimes (not often) there are sentences in French and it's repeated in English. The last thing you want is for your readers to become frustrated because they didn't understand what was being said. (I've read books written like that as well.)

Julie Weathers said...


Prologue is such a dirty word to some agents. I am wondering if I should simply send the first five pages of chapter one, and if do, do I mention there’s a prologue, or at the risk of alienating a potential agent who abhors prologues, do I send the prologue and mention it’s a prologue or not mention that the book actually has one at all?

At Surrey the panel of agents who dealt with beginnings addressed this. They said almost to a person to include a prologue if you have one. The caveat they had was that many times a prologue is written in a different style than the body of the work so they don't really get a true feel for the writing. This seemed odd to me, but I'm just a peon.

I read a prologue if a book has one. I LOVED the prologue of Game Of Thrones. Loved it. When it circled around and I found out what happened, it was so sad.

I won't be doing footnotes for either The Rain Crow or Cowgirls Wanted, but I have decided to list my research sources. Diana Gabaldon suggests opening a program such as LibraryThing to the public so readers can browse your book shelves.

Historical accuracy might not be important to some people, but others are going to ding you on every mistake. Mercy Street is hit and miss. Their portrayal of Frank Stringfellow is driving me nuts. However, that amputation scene with her reading the instructions from a book might have been accurate. Doctors being accredited was fairly new. Of their schooling, they only spent six months in actual hospital work and operations. They might never see an amputation.

Karen McCoy said...

Very good advice. Not only to follow the specifications but also to include the information to the agent about "main character appears here."

Shows that there are rules, but you can still specify exceptions. Brilliant.

Donnaeve said...

When you don't show up till mid skim.

So, I've skimmed and seen something about prune balls. I don't wanna know. I've also seen Prologue. *gasp*

Someone has likely said this, but if the MC isn't showing up until the 2nd chapter...doesn't that usually mean the story has started in the wrong place? I know this isn't the point. Well, it is sort of.

QOTKU said to tell the agent the MC doesn't show up until Chapter X. I was suprised. I thought we were about to attend The School of Story Beginnings. I say this b/c I've read over and over, you should have your MC introduced fairly well by page three. Meaning, you know their name, their age, character traits, etc. Not fully, but a good idea.

I think this is a big reason why agents ask for first 5-10 pages?

Ashes said...

I would like to humbly request that askers start signing off on their questions in the manner of people who write to advice columnists.
"Sincerely, Lonely in Omaha"
"Thank you, Sharkbait in Sin City"
"Most humbly, Nervous in the Trenches, Detroit"
For no other reason than that it would amuse me.

Lennon Faris said...

A Firefly reference? my love for this blog just grew even more.

This post is great timing. I have the exact same situation as the OP and have been wondering this very thing. I've probably confused a few agents by this point but at least it's only a few... glad to know the way to fix that.

Shaunna said...

Hi everyone. The question is mine, so I thought I'd weigh in on the conversation. Thanks, Janet, for replying so quickly.

Jennifer D - The manuscript is finished, but not revised, so I called it a WIP. I ask now instead of right before querying on the off (but hopefully unlikely) chance that Janet says I should rewrite to start with the MC.

As for the question of whether the first chapter is actually the prologue, it is not. The first chapter introduces one of several subplots that run throughout the course of the novel, all tying up into one complete package at the end. It includes the MC's mother but not the MC. I put it first because it happens first. If I were to rewrite the novel so the MC appears first, I'd either be fabricating some loosely-related event that is unimportant to the plot (not a good idea) or messing with the character arc and rising action (which I don't think is a good idea either). Janet's answer is perfect.

The French phrases are short and sweet -- things like, "je ne sais pas" and "elle est en prison." Some of the translations clarify the jokes for those who don't speak a lick of French, but I'll follow Janet's advice and leave them out of the query altogether.

Colin Smith said...

ProfeJMarie: Maybe I'm missing your point, but I don't think assuming your English-speaking target audience isn't proficient in other languages goes against diverse books. If I may quote someone who is highly quotable:

At a writing forum there was a gentleman who wanted comments on some of his work. He had a horrible habit of going on for paragraphs in Spanish and then repeating verbatim the same thing in English. We suggested he use small bits of Spanish for flavor. He didn't want to do that. The characters were Spanish. Well, yes, but most of the readers aren't and that word count is going to double with long passages written in Spanish and then translated to English. He refused to see it was frustrating to read.

Yep--Julie "Wet Blanket" Weathers just said that. And she's absolutely right. It doesn't help me to understand the Mexican experience, or what it's like to be Latino/Latina if I'm constantly drawn out of the story because sections of important dialog are in a language I don't understand, and the context does nothing to help me understand it, and I have to flip to a footnote, or a glossary, or Google Translate to appreciate what's being said. Yes, there will always be an element of cultural identification that's lost if you don't speak the native tongue. But that doesn't mean it's impossible to write stories about non-English cultures, and help linguistically challenged people understand, connect with, and admire those cultures writing only in English.

Or maybe I'm wacko. What d'y'all think? :)

Colin Smith said...

P.S.: Julie--I hope you don't take offense at "wet blanket." To me it's like calling Andre the Giant "Shorty." :)

Ashes: We live to amuse you. ;)

Julie Weathers said...


Sometimes a story just doesn't start with the main character. Some examples have been cited above. Often mysteries, suspense, etc. In a mystery, you might start with a scene where someone is involved with something and gets killed. Chapter two is where the detective shows up.

I watch a lot of crime shows. Here's a group of kids running through a Halloween maze. A little guy in a bear costume gets lost and frightened. He keeps running. Arrrgh! A skeleton. No, go that way! A monster. "Help! Please, someone help!" He darts down around another corner and runs into a mummy. He faints.

The scene cuts to the crime squad wandering through the maze, trying to find the mummy, mumbling about fake dead bodies and wondering why they were called out. Hmmm, that really is a human body.

All journeys start with the first step, but sometimes the first step is out the back door.

Janice L. Grinyer said...

Whup. Another Firefly mention. Time to put on my firefly pants and Captain tightpants t-shirt. Yes, there is such a thing, and I wear 'em.

And to follow through from yesterday - Julie, I am now considering Surrey in BC as one of my go-to's for Writers Conferences. You mention it often enough to where I recognize its impact on you. That means something.

Today's Opie question makes me think of "don't underestimate your readers." I suppose Agents should NEVER be underestimated :D.

That is all. Good day!

Colin Smith said...

Some weeks ago, someone on Twitter said something like, "A Firefly marathon. What could be better?" Nathan Fillion responded: "Firefly Season 2." :)

Julie Weathers said...

Colin and ProfeJMarie,

I love learning about other cultures. Jack Whyte and I had a perfectly fascinating discussion about Sarmatians and Romans at Surrey. I don't need to, nor want to, see long passages in Scythian to heighten my appreciation of a story about them. I think it's interesting that Tolkien invented languages for his books, but it doesn't necessarily improve the story that much for me. I know, blasphemy.

I have earned the name Wet Blanket. It's kind of like an Indian naming ceremony thing. Before anyone gets their knickers in a knot, I am part Indian, so I feel I have the right to make that joke.

Firefly Season 2 is exactly right.

I got to thinking about a writers exercise we did at B&W a few months ago. The exercise was to go down the alphabet and write a little paragraph with your characters using a word beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. I went down the list with some interesting results. For those of you with writers block, you might try this. Just think of a letter, and write a scene.

I decided I wanted to add in some uncommon words, but not necessarily $5 words.

So, for F it was: Others were ancient, creased with use, and filemot with time. These were the books that would reveal Stossel. It was here I set my sights.

And T: Tattered Tyrian clouds unraveled across a scarlet sky, boding ill for those who believed in weather signs, and I did.

I think you can get by with a sprinkling of more unusual words, but if you send your readers to the dictionary too frequently, it gets irritating.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Firefly season 2- ah, don't tease me. It's cruel. Nathan Fallion must come over and comfort me.

Julie- sometimes a wet blanket is a good thing. Soldier on.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

"It doesn't help me to understand the Mexican experience, or what it's like to be Latino/Latina if I'm constantly drawn out of the story because sections of important dialog are in a language I don't understand,"

This statement is where my point is. This assumes a lot about our readers. And while it can obviously apply to many populations, I'm going to go out on pretty solid limb and say that your statement above assumes that "most" readers are white, European, English-only speakers. It also assumes that when I put Spanish phrases into my novel, you are assuming that my purpose is teach about Latino culture. It's not. My native language is English, but I speak Spanish. I am not pulled out of a story due to Spanish phrases. Maybe I am if there's lots of Amharic, but I go with it because A) I am not the only one reading that book and B) that's the nature of the story and those characters.

Malinda Lo has a fantastic series about how this kind of thing impacts diverse voices from becoming part of the mainstream. It's our ("our"=we white people in the publishing biz) unintentional bias that gets in the way. It seems like a little thing, but it actually has more impact on the systemic issue than even I realized until recent years.

Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews

ie: as white readers and writers, we often make the mistake of making "white" and "English" the default. For the writer who had full paragraphs of Spanish followed by English... while I agree that his approach is misguided, his motivation behind it seems legit.

And now I've veered further away from the topic of this post, prune it all to Carkoon.

Colin Smith said...

ProfeJMarie: Ah! I said: "IF you're target audience is English-speaking..." Yes, there are exceptions, like yourself. But for the most part, native English-speakers are monolingual. I think you missed the premise of my point (i.e., an English-speaking target audience).

Steph said...

So 1 blog entry and 50 comments later, I feel the need to re-watch the glories of Firefly.

As to footnotes: I think they can work pretty well, especially with e-books where hyperlinks offer a quick way to get from the note to the text and back. Sherry Thomas's added a lot to her Elemental Trilogy, I thought.

Donnaeve said...

Julie - ah, great examples. I get it. I don't write mysteries/crime - well, I did write a crime book but...that's a whole other story, and I've certainly have read some, so yes, this makes sense now.

I didn't know the genre. Having said that, the more I thought about it, the more I realize this happens more than I think (or know), and maybe I'm harkening back to an old rule.

Did I just say harkening? My brain is on prunes.

Colin Smith said...

Donna: "well, I did write a crime book but...that's a whole other story"--LOL, it certainly is! Sorry, my brain went all literal for a moment... :D

Kae Bell said...

Did someone say Nathan Fillion?

John Frain said...

Ever show up for a party when you just get back in town and everybody is talking about something that you know absolutely nothing about.

Yeah, Firefly.

I quit watching TV and now so many cultural references fly right over my head like so many French phrases.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Well Julie W. I'm screwed.
Not only do I have a prologue but it's third person and the book is first. I've tried making them the same but it simply does not work. I guess I'll just have to tighten things up so both voices get heard/read in first five pages.

Cold and confused in Connecticut
(That's for Ashes)

BJ Muntain said...

Okay. I'm coming late to the discussion, so I'm responding to a lot, and so my comment is going to be too long. I'm sorry.

Something I've learned in my many years in the trenches (someday, I've got to learn how to get out of here): always send the pages/chapters from the beginning of the book. Don't send chapters from elsewhere. Don't send pages from 'this is where the book starts to get good'. Because if the pages from the beginning aren't the 'good' part, then maybe the book is beginning in the wrong place. You notice, I didn't say anything about when the MC shows up. It doesn't really matter, at this point. And Janet's mentioned what you need to do if your MC doesn't show up right away.

I do have a prologue for my novel. I know a lot of people do not like prologues, because prologues are so often done wrong. I've even seen some agents say NOT to include a prologue in your pages, because 'why waste the few pages we ask for that way?' So I research the agents I query to see how they feel about prologues. Some say don't include them. Some say do include them. Some hate them. Some like them. So I send what it seems will fit their requirements most. When they ask for a full, I'll send the prologue as part of the full.

I am a die-hard rebel against blanket statements, like, "Thou must not use semi-colons. Thou must never have a prologue." The hate against both those things (and many, many others) is because many people use them incorrectly. If they're done right, use them. But be aware that there are people out there who are biased against them, simply because.

But that's a prologue. People who don't like prologues are going to skip over them, anyway. Chapters are different.

No, it's not important to include your MC in your first few pages. Or even in your first chapter. He should, however, appear by the second chapter. And if he's not in the first scene or chapter, that scene or chapter has to be compelling enough for a reader to keep reading. Of course, even if he is in that chapter, it needs to be compelling enough. So, basically, just make sure the beginning of your book is compelling enough to keep a reader reading.

As for the 'footnotes' - as Janet said, if we can intuit the meaning of the French phrases from the context, you don't need the footnotes. If we can't, then you might need to revise so we can. If you're writing a novel in one language, you cannot expect a reader to understand another language without context. Footnotes, for the most part, are for non-fiction. You have to be a very special writer for footnotes to work in fiction, and not everyone is Terry Pratchett.

The problem with footnotes in fiction is that footnotes take the reader out of the story. You do not want to take the reader out of the story. You never know if they're ever going to make it back in. If you remind the reader that they're reading the story and not actually living it, that's one more reason for the reader to stop reading.

EM: "Translating French does not qualify for this exception." But, of course, translating 'ook' does. :)

Julie: Thank you for that wonderful excercise using the alphabet. I might use that.

John: I, too, gave up television many years ago, and never had a chance to watch Firefly. However I know many people who have and hang out in online groups where people know it intimately, and I've developed a fair understanding of what it means. The worst part, as I understand it and has been noted here, is that it was cancelled nearly mid-story, leaving people grasping for meaning in their lives.

And, I think I'm done for the day...

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Well, BJ - yeah, ook must be footnoted, explained, and cross-referenced on page 357 which was not included in the text because...well, Terry Pratchett. I miss him. When I win my Hugo so as to get Neil Gaiman and Patrick Rothfuss to play Cards Against Humanity with me, I hope Pratchett's ghost joins us.

Prologues are dangerous beasts. Julie cites Game of Thrones (Book 1 of Song of Fire and Ice) - that was a great one. But by Dances with Dragons (Book 5)- the prologue seemed disjointed and unconnected from the rest of the story. Still, he is GRRM so rules don't apply.

And my life did lose much of its meaning when Firefly was cancelled. And I hear the Carkoonian fugitive squad closing in. I better duck out of here.

DLM said...

JMarie, may I quote your comment above? I'd like to blog that.

nightsmusic said...

I am so very late today (busy, busy, busy at work for a change!) and I didn't read all of the comments though I noticed they more or less devolved into foreign languages so, my two cents worth here for the first 3 - 5 pages is:

I write paranormal historical romance and if I don't have one of my two main characters within the first two pages, an agent who reps that genre won't even bother with it. The book, the story, in the genre I write in has GOT to have one of them or it's a lost cause. So my first 3 - 5 not only has to start where they story starts and that will include either the H or Hn because...romance, plus, the writing and the story itself has to grab the agent. In that vein, if your story doesn't have your MC in the first chapter, I'd have to ask if that's where your story really starts.

Just my 2 cents...

Kregger said...

So from what I've read above,

Write your first chapter (five pages max.) using detached-third person, including backstory stretching over 200 years and written in Tolkien's Elvish (either quenya or Sindarin, I don't have a preference)with English subtitles using Quenya Lexicon font.

/ˈɛ.lɛn ˈ ˈlu:.mɛn nɔ.mɛn.ti.ˈɛl.vɔ/ /ˈɛn.nyn ˈdu.rin ˈa.ran ˈmɔ.ri.a ˈpɛ.dɔ ˈmɛl̡.lɔn a ˈmin.nɔ/ /im ˈ ˈhajn ˈɛ.xant/ /kɛ.lɛb.ˈrim.bɔr ɔ ɛ.ˈrɛ.gi.ɔn ˈtej.θant i ˈθi:w ˈhin/

Either that or use italics.

But whatever you do, don't call it a prologue.

For Ashes,

Corky Kregger Corrigan at the courthouse (again)

Colin Smith said...

ProfeJMarie: I've been giving your comment some more thought, especially along the lines of "what if your target audience is NOT necessarily English-speaking?" And I agree, this raises the issue you point to: do we intentionally write for a specific language group, or do we default to whatever we are--assume ourselves to be the norm (not NORMAN)? I don't have a problem with choosing to write for a specific language group (e.g., English-speakers). But I agree there is a problem when we just assume our readership is white and English. Especially these days, as culturally diverse the West has become (the U.S. in particular), why would you assume that?

Yes, I know, not exactly on topic, but fascinating and important, don't you think?

Jason Magnason said...

Okay my fellow Rieders, I am about to ask the ultimate question, the why of the universe, the numero uno, unanswered question of the century.....

Tune in next week to find out what the ultimate question is. Now a word from our sponsors.

Looking for a prologue, then have no fear, Page 1 protag has everything you need. We also have Page 5 Protag if you need a little longer to find your hook. For those looking for a hit and run line, or a long winded wind up, we have a Chapter 2 protag on sale for a limited time.

Order now and we will throw in a pack of footnotes, free of charge.

See you next week.

The Runaway Comma - at Sentence End

Colin Smith said...

Jason: "The world ends in six days! What will we do? Tune in next week..." ;)

DLM said...

Julie that guy needs to watch some Star Trek. :) You RARELY hear Klingon (or Klingonee) or Bajoran or Andorian or any other language there.

But of course few novels have the universal translator.

Still, it's all but standard issue for most entertainment to be largely presented in one language. Tell the entire history of the BBC "they wouldn't be speaking English" or contemplate the popularity of multi-lingual movies and such (Villa Allegra doesn't count, and probably hasn't been in production in the past 35 years anyway).

Colin Smith said...

Do we "tune in" to anything these days? Podcasts? Digital TV? The Internet? Perhaps if you're still using a radio...

Sorry--me and my distracted mind. At least you only get it in short doses. I have to live with it! :)

Jason Magnason said...

Sorry folks. Sometimes The Runaway Comma gets a hold of my keyboard when I am AFK. I am sure he will be back before we have to tune in to Colin's End of the world fiasco.

nightsmusic said...

Julie, I have a dear friend who sounds like she just moved north from Georgia but she's actually from southern Illinois so that comment from your delivery gal doesn't sound odd at all to me.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I've thought lots about Shaunna's (the OP's) question today.

When I was considering querying, I read as many books possible published in the last three years. I didn't read any with footnotes but I never read Jonathan Stroud as suggested by Amy Shaefer. Now I'm curious to read his books.

Anything that takes me out of the story bothers me. Just the idea of a footnote bothers me. But if it is a literary device, in fiction, I can see how it would work. If it is to explain the translation of some je ne sais pas, It would bother me. And being the fickle reader I am I would probably close the book and look for another.

I'm curious to understand why sending pages other than the first five (not pages 5-10) is a good idea. I would think an agent, or a reader needs to be engaged and want to know what happens next, starting from the first page.

As far as a writer's personal jargon goes and specifically science fiction, one of the best series I've read is the Red Rising trilogy by Peirce Brown. There is no need for a glossary of terms. His jargon is easily understood. He's created wonderful curse words that are soft on the ears. At least for an American. Brits may be more offended.

Donnaeve said...

(insert sound of needle scratching across vinyl)

...back to that first chapter discussion's a bit of what was sticking in my head about first chapters introducing the MC as a must or not.

I only follow a few blogs...and one of the one's I follow (which requires I sanitize my eyeballs after reading) is Chuck Wendig's Terrible Minds.

He wrote a blog post back in 2012, so maybe I'm "harkening" back to that.

"...the first chapter serves as an emblem of the whole. It’s got to have a bit of everything. It needs to be representative of the story you’re telling — other chapters deeper in the fat layers and muscle tissue of the story may stray from this, but the first chapter can’t. It’s got to have all the key stuff: the main character, the motive, the conflict, the mood, the theme, the setting, the timeframe, mystery, movement, dialogue, pie. That’s why it’s so important — and so difficult — to get right. Because the first chapter, like the last chapter, must have it all."

Here's his post, and the one I copied above is #24.

This is likely what stuck in my head.

Wish I could get Blogger to like me enough to linkify. Colin, oh dear Colin?

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

DLM - feel free to use whatever you like. I'm thinking a comment thread on a public blog is fair game! (Thanks for asking anyhow.)

Julie Weathers said...


Blast, I screwed my reply. I was going to say she doesn't sound southern to me, but then I don't think I have an accent either, so what do I know?

To the original debate about writing to your audience. I think if an author feels they must write a noble Italian's dialogue in Italian for authenticity and then translating it to English, even if the audience is presumed to be predominantly English-speaking, they are not doing their job very well.

I think readers are going to be able to figure out which of my characters are from the south without them uttering "y'all" every other sentence.

Colin Smith said...

Donna(stbnytba*)'s link:

*soon-to-be-ny-times-bestselling-author. Not to be confused with Patrick Lee (nytba).

Colin Smith said...

Oh, and did someone remind us that if your first 3-5 pages aren't good enough, there's a good chance the rest of the novel needs work? Didn't Janet say, not long ago, how frustrating it is to be gripped and enthralled with the first 5 pages, and then for the rest of the novel to fall to pieces?

Janet Reid said...

a reminder from your Reider here: the comment trail is getting seriously over worked again.

Comments should be concise. That means under 100 words.
Comments should be few. That means fewer than three/day. The ONLY exception to this is someone who creates hyperlinks for other people (so far that's Colin, but it's not limited to him.)

Comments should be in the same solar system as the blog topic. If you're wandering too far out of the gravitational pull of the topic, you're in danger.

Generally everyone just needs one of these reminders, but I can and will start deleting if we don't rein ourselves in.

When I see "oh the comment trail is too long to read" we've got problems.

AJ Blythe said...

Again too many comments *sigh*. Daylight savings finishes here in a few weeks, and hopefully the US time shift is close as well - then I'll be able to read at a better time and not miss the chat.

I have Aussie slang in my wip (so not technically a foreign language) and I hope the situation provides context so they will be understood without translation. Seems like that's the approach QOTKU recommends. Now I just have to worry about the words that have slipped in that I don't even realise are specifically Aussie!

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

My mate Charlie Finlay wrote a short story called "Footnotes". It is nothing but footnotes. He sold it to F&SF.

Another mate of mine Ebony McKenna wrote a humourous YA Fantasy series called "Ondine". It's rife with footnotes that add to the story most marvelously because they are part of the story. I thought she did a clever job with her footnotes.

The problem with footnotes as people would use them is because they break the fourth wall and/or they suspend the suspension of disbelief. Very few people can do them well.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Opie: don't fret that the MC doesn't show up until page 7. The first three pages aren't so the agent can judge the storyline. The first three pages are so they can judge your voice and style.

If you've told the story well, I don't see any reason why the MC has to show up in the first three pages. I've read several crime novels where events happened, and the MC (a detective) doesn't show up until the next scene or even chapter two.

As for prologues, why is a prologue a prologue and not the first scene of chapter one? My current WUS had a prologue in its early days because it was an event that happened twenty years previous. Later, I ditched it as a prologue and shared the info in an anecdote between characters: "Felix, we've got a problem and this is why." Betty tells Felix the secret she's held for twenty years. "Holy Prunes!" Felix gasps. "This changes everything!"

My no-longer-a-prologue works better this way.

Prologues often happen because people are trying to tell a story chronologically. Yes, the reader may need to know this information, but do they really need to be there? How and when do the other characters learn about what happened in the prologue? Can't the reader learn about it at the same time?

I question anyone who has prunes for balls.

bass said...

For what it's worth, the Chinese in Firefly is pronounced so badly that even native Chinese speakers don't make out much of it. Their pronunciation is ATROCIOUS. Still my favorite show. I don't know most of the curses used offhand, although I know there are plenty of places online that list the translations, but my favorite is that on one occasion, Mal says "Holy Testicle Tuesday!" which is just a delightful swear if I've ever seen one.

Stephen G Parks said...

As soon as I saw "footnotes," I searched for references to Pratchett. Glad to see him well represented here. He could do more world building in a footnote (or a footnote to a footnote) than many authors can do in a page. But again that's the exception that proves the rule.