querying a novel

Should you query an incomplete novel?

Quick, what’s the fastest way to sabotage your efforts to get an agent for your book? Answer: query your novel before it’s ready.

If you’re a novelist, you’re not ready to query until your manuscript is completely written, fully revised, and ready for its close-up. Don’t be misled by advice intended for nonfiction authors, who whip off a few chapters, then pitch and sell their books before they’ve written the rest. They don’t finish the book until they have a deal in hand.

Novelists, that’s not your process.

Are you ready to query a novel?

As a novelist, you need a perfectly polished gem (that’s a technical euphemism for “complete, fully revised manuscript”) ready to send at the first peep from an agent. That’s not to say you shouldn’t expect more editing and revisions. Your agent will almost certainly have more feedback and changes to request, and your manuscript may undergo both developmental and copyediting with a publisher.

But your task as a querying author is to present agents with your very best effort. The publishing industry is tough. Agents receive hundreds (and big agencies, even thousands) of queries every week. Don’t waste your time or theirs by fishing around for someone willing to spend company time and money cleaning up a story that’s still a mess.

That means no “I’m still ironing out the ending.” That means no “I haven’t finished proofreading for grammar and spelling.” That means no “I was wondering if the beginning was too slow, so I was considering…”

Don’t pitch a unfinished manuscript.

Prep your manuscript

A manuscript isn’t ready for querying until you’ve completed a thorough revision process. Start with the big-picture story elements, not the easy-peasy stuff like grammar and spelling. You might decide you need professional editing before you pitch; remember, raw talent shouldn’t equal raw material.

When you’re ready to query, line up all the parts and pieces a prospective agent might request: short and long versions of your synopsis, a logline or elevator pitch, well-researched comp titles, a brief author bio, a snappy Twitter pitch if you plan to participate in pitch contests, and of course a properly formatted manuscript.

If you don’t know how to prepare these things, fire up your computer. A good place to start is the fat little query and submission section on my resources page. Or find a pro who can help you out. I offer a course/consultation that teaches authors how to do all this for themselves, although it’s currently available for established clients only. (Care to join me for some editing?)

Read more: Should you get professional editing before querying agents?

Brace for exposure

So you wanna be a bestseller. That means exposure, and exposure means—surprise!—feeling exposed. How do you feel about letting a group of complete strangers dissect every scene on every page? If the idea makes your skin crawl so much that you run screaming into the bathroom with your manuscript clutched to your chest, you’re probably not ready to query.

Give yourself a little time to come to grips with being seen. Get impartial eyes on your story. If you don’t know anyone you can rely on for impartial feedback, find readers or critique partners online.

Once you’re ready to roll, get a good system for personalizing and sending out multiple queries. You’ll also need a smart system for tracking who you’ve pitched and the status of each query.

And then keep writing. The show’s not over once you’ve begun to query. Don’t sit on your hands and moon over how excruciatingly slow the submissions process is. And certainly don’t get sucked into bemoaning how your creative soul is being rent on the rack of rejection. You’re pitching a novel in an industry based on pitching novels. Suck it up and start writing the next book.

Remember, nothing sells a book like the next one—possibly an even better one. You’ve got this.

Just make sure you’re really ready before you go knocking on agents’ doors, okay?

Read more: How to cope when your query is rejected

Lisa Poisso, Editor and Book Coach

Understanding how stories work changes everything. I’ll show you how to back up your creative instincts so your ideas hit home. It’s time to accelerate your journey from aspiring writer to emerging author. 

Ready to get serious about your book? Apply to work with me.

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