This question came in from Nat: "I am almost finished writing a book. I don't know what the next step is. Do I get an editor or a literary agent first? And how do I find one. I will take all the help and tips I can get!"
Times have changed drastically since I first started querying books in the bygone days where writers had to print out their manuscripts, rubber-band the pages together, and then send them in to publishers with a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). Of course back then, I thought I was ready for publication, but I now realize I wasn't.
It took many long years of learning, growing (and even a seven year hiatus), before I finally reached a point of maturity in my skills. When I jumped back into the publishing scene after my break with a new book I'd written, I realized just how different things were and how they're still constantly evolving.
So, what's a writer to do today in this ever-changing industry? If you've completed a book, like Nat, you may be wondering what the next step is.
If we were sitting down having coffee together, here's what I'd say:
1. Set aside your book.
I know that's not pleasant advice to hear after you've spent so much time on that baby, not when you're so madly in love with it and want to see it in print more than anything else in the world.
But the best thing you can do for the book is to give it a rest and give yourself a break from it. The time and distance away help lend an objectivity that is essential for editing. Even after publishing and writing many books, I still always set aside a manuscript when I finish–often for weeks, if not several months. Then when I come back to it, I'm able to edit with a clarity and objectivity that wasn't there before.
2. Carefully self-edit your book.
As tempting as it may be to skip a thorough self-edit (and merely gloss over the book), you shouldn't shortchange yourself. If you do, you'll surely pay for it later.
As I begin the process of self-editing for the first time after finishing, I usually combine a macro level (big picture edit that addresses plot, characterization, setting, etc.) with a micro level (sentence level edit that deals with word choice, repetitions, etc.).
3. Get outside feedback from beta readers or critique partners.
Beta readers are "first readers" who read in order to give their general impressions. They don't mark up things or get nit-picky but rather relay more general impressions. Beta readers can be genre fans, your target audience, friends, other writers, etc.
Critique partners, on the other hand, are usually writers who are familiar with your genre. After working out a reciprocal partnership, you exchange books and offer feedback (within the manuscript itself) that is more specific than what beta readers give.
The more qualified a person is (i.e. multi-published author or avid reader of your genre), usually the you will be able to give their feedback greater weight. The less qualified, the more you will need to sift through opinions before going back to the editing process.
4. Look for an agent or professional editor.
After spending hours and weeks and perhaps months rewriting and editing, then you might be ready to search for an agent (if you're traditionally publishing) or a professional editor (if you're self publishing).
I don't recommend searching out either one too soon (before you've done the above steps). For one, you could burn bridges with agents by sending them material that's poorly edited. And secondly, you don't want to pay a professional editor to do some of the editing that you could have taken care of yourself.
Once you're ready, I suggest investigating and compiling a list of possible agents and editors. Do the research to find the ones that represent what you write and look carefully at their guidelines. Check references by contacting their clients. In other words, do your homework. There's no quick and easy way to find good agents and editors besides taking the time to thoroughly research.
5. Start writing your next book.
No matter which of the above steps you're in, I highly suggest starting another book, especially when you're in waiting mode. The process of delving into another story can help in a number of ways.
First writing takes your mind off the LONG waits that are inherent in the publishing industry. Second, when an agent or reader asks about future books, you'll be able to tell them you already have more in the works, which shows that you're out to have a writing career versus just publishing one or two books.
So that's the advice I would give Nat. How about you? What advice would you give someone who's finished writing a book and wondering what to do next?