We spend months laboring over a book trying to perfect it. One day we push away from our laptops, stare at the last page, and get a nervous flutter in our stomachs. Is our precious book finally ready to face the brutal world of agents and editors?
Julie Musil asked: "How did you know your manuscript was ready before querying?"
Her question echoes that of most writers who finish a book. How can we know when our manuscript is really ready to query. We don’t want to send it out too soon. But we also don’t want to let fear hold us back. Is there a way to know for certain if our manuscript is at a point where it will garner the attention we so desperately want?
What I’m learning is that it’s usually incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for a writer to determine the worth of their own manuscript, with their own subjective eyes. Case in point, I recently turned in my second contracted book to my publisher, and I thought it was the best book I’d ever written. Their verdict? It’s sludge. Rewrite major portions of it.
Most of the time, writers have an inflated opinion of their work, like I did. Very few of us hit the send key and say, “Well, there goes that piece of junk. I just know no one is going to like it.” Instead we hold our breaths and check our inbox every few minutes, wondering when the bidding war will start.
Agent Chip MacGregor said this: “As an agent, I see hundreds of manuscripts every year that I reject for representation. Nearly all of these are rejected for one basic reason: the writer simply isn’t good enough. The ideas may be interesting, and the marketing may be slick, but the authors simply aren’t good enough to publish.”
None of us want to fall into that category of “simply aren’t good enough to publish.” So, how can we make sure we’re sending out our queries at the right time? Here are just a few of my thoughts:
Get two or more qualified and objective critiques on our books first.
The feedback must come from someone who isn’t afraid to tell us exactly what they think (hopefully in a kind way). And that someone needs to be knowledgeable about the craft of writing, preferably another writer or editor at our level or beyond.
Often critique partners don’t feel comfortable sharing their truest thoughts. If we want a deeply honest critique, then we can say upfront, “I give you permission to tell me exactly what doesn’t work. Please be completely truthful, even if it’s painful for me.” Then our critiquers will know we’re teachable which gives them more freedom to share openly and objectively.
Make sure we’ve made good strides toward mastering basic fiction-writing techniques.
As I’ve critiqued for contests and for other writers, I’ve been surprised at how easily I can distinguish where writers are at in their writing skills. Some are at a freshman level in the college of writing. Some fall in the middle—not struggling with beginner mistakes, but still needing to mature. Others are seniors and ready for graduation.
Writers must gain mastery over the way they string words together and bring a story to life. Our plots and characters don’t necessarily have to be perfect for us to garner the attention of an agent or editor. Most authors have to make rewrites for their publisher once they’re contracted. But. . . we have to reach a place where our writing skills aren’t inhibiting the story-telling. (In the next post, I’ll share specific ways I’ve challenged myself to grow as a writer.)
Expect that agents and editors will be the gatekeepers.
If we’re getting positive feedback from critiques, and if we’ve moved to a senior level in our writing skill, then we’re probably at a place where we can begin to query with confidence.
And yet, ultimately, in the set-up of the current traditional publishing system, agents and editors act as the final gatekeepers. If we consistently get no response, form rejections, or a “no thanks” of some form, then that’s probably another indication we may not be quite as ready as we thought. (Or that perhaps our story doesn’t have a fit in today’s market.)
From what I’ve seen, most writers who reach a publishable place in their writing skills will eventually get picked up by an agent, even if their stories still need work. It may take many months of persistent querying, but usually agents and editors can pick out writers who’ve worked to hone their writing skills and story-telling ability.
That's my opinion! Now it's your turn! How did you know when you were ready to query? And if you haven’t queried yet, what tests do you plan to use to help you know when to start?