Tips on Writing a Sample
Our storyline provides the skeleton of the book, and we want a writer to put the flesh on the bones. Using creative writing parlance, our storyline ‘tells’ the story and we want the writer to ‘show’ it.
When we read samples, we’re hoping to find a writer who has taken our story and really inhabited it. We don’t want a sample to join-the-dots, or to find the wording of our storyline used verbatim. Occasionally we’ll include snatches of dialogue in our storyline – to illustrate character or tone – but this is rare. This is the sort of colour we want our writers to provide.
What’s exciting for us is to see how writers create quite different narratives from the same storyline. Remember – skeletons often look quite similar, but flesh-and-blood people look very different.
Every writer we approach will be competent – we look for the standout. Writers might opt for first person or third, present tense or past; they might give characters differing physical appearances or psychological nuances; one writer might bring particular focus to the visual orientation in a chapter, another might have spectacular imagery or scintillating dialogue.
For older projects especially, we’re looking for the elusive ‘voice’ – it’s the thing, aside from a great concept, which makes editors sit up and say ‘this is something different.’
Voice will often be dependent on the genre of the project, and you should take the storyline as a guide to the tone, style and readership. We love strong characters, authentic dialogue, and well-thought through transitions between plot points.
Sometimes we use multiple writers for a series, in which case we might be searching for a writer able to match the established style.
Show, don’t tell
As we’ve said above, we do the ‘telling’ with our storyline, and the writer does the ‘showing’. We could write pages on the difference between showing and telling – it’s a cornerstone of effective creative writing – but it broadly means that instead of generalising, you should use specifics from the main character’s perspective. Instead of ‘Kyle was driving home in the heavy rain’, ‘Rain ricocheted off the roof like buckshot. Kyle hunched forward over the wheel trying to make out the road-signs through the wash of his windshield.’
A variety of telling is called ‘exposition’. This is when a writer gives us back-story or factual details which seem out of place and break the pace of the narrative. Subtly weaving in exposition takes practice.
Follow the storyline
Writing to someone else’s brief can be hard. We’re aware that sometimes our storylines can be tweaked to make them more effective and we’re always open to discussion about potential changes. However, we have given a great deal of thought into how the story progresses, so in sampling we ask the writer to respect that. If a sample veers substantially from the storyline, in either characterisation or plot-progression, then we will have doubts about working with that writer over a longer script.
Situating narrative in time and place is important. Using a character’s senses – sight, sound, smell – enriches a scene and makes the reader engage. Be wary of too much dialogue or internal thought at the expense of envisaging a scene.
We make a good deal of effort in our storylines to make the protagonist likeable. That’s not to say s/he isn’t often flawed, or even an anti-hero(ine), but maintaining reader sympathy is crucial. Overly sulky, aggressive or plain boring characters risk distancing the reader. Our main characters should be in charge of their story, driving the events, rather than just reporting them.
Especially for longer books, in which characters are more complex, our storylines will often include cast lists that detail characters’ appearances, histories and personalities. This is meant to be an aid to characterisation and a writer shouldn’t feel obliged to include all of this detail in the sample. To do so runs the risk of too much exposition (see above). Often, this material will be conveyed allusively over a whole script, or piecemeal, as it is required.
Point of view
Most of our stories are told through one character’s perspective. In commercial fiction, this brings the reader closer to that character’s experience and generates sympathy. This means we don’t see or hear anything unless the central character does. You should avoid slipping into another character’s perspective or using an ‘authorial’ voice.
Occasionally, our stories will be narrated through multiple POVs, but even then we won’t mix POVs within a scene.
Length and pacing
Depending on what sort of book we’re creating – in terms of genre, gender audience, age range – we normally have a very accurate idea of how long we want the book to be, how long the chapters should be and where the chapter breaks will fall. For example, if we’re producing a 10,000-word book with ten 1,000-word chapters, we’ll ask for a sample of three chapters, therefore 3,000 words. Writing chapters that are the appropriate length will demonstrate a grasp of pacing.
Start with a bang…
First lines are terribly important. Our storyline tells a writer where the book starts, but it’s up to that writer to start it in a surprising, dramatic, idiosyncratic or intriguing way. It shows that you understand how to engage the reader early on. If those first lines can really give a taste of voice too, then great!
…and end with a read through
Everyone makes mistakes (even editors!), but if we feel a writer hasn’t read over his/her sample before submitting, if it’s littered with mistakes that indicate it’s been rushed, or if a writer’s grasp of the rules of grammar are particularly poor, then we probably won’t decide to work with that writer.