That is the Question!
Following up on my blog post about Publishing Basics, which covers the “three” tiers of the publishing world, I wrote about the differences between editors and agents and PR groups. In The Query Letter post, I covered some basic tips for writing a solid query letter. Today I want to talk about one of the hardest questions a writer faces. Am I ready to query?
Am I ready to query?
“Writing” is an art, a craft, and a business. When people ask what it takes to be a “writer,” the easy answer is sit at your (desk, table, counter) and use your (pen, pencil, computer) to write a story. What they really want to know is: 1. How do you come up with ideas? 2. How do you write an entire novel? 3. How do you get published?
#1 is easy for most of us. Ideas are rarely the problem. Honing in on one may be a challenge, but we find ideas all around us.
#2 requires dedication, determination, and an endless capacity for knowing that no matter what happens, you can’t stop. This is where the magic of creation meets the complexities of craft. But it’s one we can all do. It doesn’t require a degree, money (though it helps to be able to go to conferences and take workshops!), or any special equipment. All it requires is tenacity.
#3 is the first part of this equation where a writer has limited control. You can control what you write, you can’t control who wants to buy it. You are in charge, however, of the submission process. At least in terms of putting your work out there. Which brings us to today’s post. How do you know when you’re ready.
While each writer is unique and every manuscript a different journey, there are a few boxes we can all check off before we start submitting our work to agents or editors. I’m going to discuss six questions you may want to answer (truthfully!) before you start the query process.
1. How many drafts have you done on your own?
If the answer is one, you aren’t ready to query. If the answer is: I’ve done so many drafts I can’t count them all, you may be getting closer. So what is the “right” number? That depends on multiple variables, but I can give you a quick rule of thumb, if you read your manuscript and can still make changes, you aren’t done rewriting.
If you can go through a draft, reading closely, and you can’t find a single thing to change . . . you have done what you can do for the current draft. Now would be a great time to get beta readers, enter competitions, awards, meet with agents at conferences, or hire a professional editor. But at least you can check this box off the list!
2. Have you read it on a hard copy?
The mind works differently reading a computer screen than reading from a hard, paper copy. We see things on a paper copy we won’t catch on a computer screen. When you think you are “done,” set the manuscript aside for a week or so, then print it out and read a hard copy. Make notes on the copy. Then after reading through the entire manuscript, go back to the computer and make the edits/changes/add or cut material. After that process, read it again on the screen.
Reading the entire manuscript out loud can help you catch mistakes as well. Keep in mind, if after doing this, you’re still making changes, you aren’t finished! Don’t forget that first box, “can I still find changes to make.”
3. Where have you gotten feedback?
If you are an early career writer, or this is your first book-length work, it’s a safe bet your manuscript could be improved with critiques from outside eyes. The tricky part is whose. Writer’s groups are fine, but there are a few things I would caution writers about with feedback from other (unpublished) writers. First, you want to be the worst, least experienced writer in your group.
While other new authors can be very useful, and give solid feedback, you are better off if at least one of the members of your group has published, preferably in your genre. Obviously, if someone in your group is a creative writing teacher, a professional editor, or works in the industry, that’s great. But make sure you are getting feedback from someone with credentials. Second, genre. There’s nothing wrong with people who write and read different genres providing suggestions to improve your work. But be aware of whether or not suggestions fit into the genre you’re writing. A romance writer may not give you constructive feedback on your horror novel, simply because they don’t understand how your genre works. More importantly, they may miss something important, because they aren’t familiar with the genre you write in.
Lastly, “group” feedback can make your work start to feel muddy if you try to make everyone happy. Don’t let too many chefs get their hands on your stew. My suggestion is to choose one person to read the full manuscript, not the entire group. Or at least one at a time, so you can take in suggestions, rework the draft using the feedback that feels correct for you, then have another reader critique. Often the least polished material I read when working with a client, is a first chapter that has been “critiqued” over and over by a group. (5 & 6 below provide more information about feedback).
4. How much time between finishing a draft and doing a final read through?
As hard as waiting is, time can be your friend. By reading drafts back-to-back-to-back, we can miss problems that we would catch with a little “distance.” Taking time off between drafts allows your mind to focus on other things for awhile (work on another manuscript or a short story). When you return to the manuscript, it’s easier to find problems instead of having your creative mind fill in the holes without you realizing they exist.
Shifting between the creative side and the editorial side (yes there’s cross over, but you understand the distinction I’m making, right?) requires focus. Learn to read like an editor. Take enough time off that you can set aside your emotional response to your own work and look at it critically. Make sure you have at least a week after your last rewrite before you read that one last time, and if you don’t make any changes, you can check off this box too.
5. Have you considered competitions, awards, and professional feedback
There’s nothing to lose by trying your material out through submitting to competitions, awards, or professional feedback. Always read the fine print (if the competition wants control of your rights etc. don’t do it!). There are a lot of great awards out there, which come with a step up on the publishing ladder. For example, some come with a publishing contract, agent introductions, or feedback from professional readers. Lastly, there are different ways to get professional feedback. Conferences often host one-on-one sessions with authors, agents, and editors.
Critiques run anywhere from the first page to the first 50+ depending on the specifics. Conferences often offer paid critiques with experts. If you are an early career writer, I highly recommend trying a few of these. Get a sense of how someone in the industry receives your work, even if it’s only the opening chapter. If they say you aren’t ready yet, consider taking more workshops, reading more craft books, or finding classes through writers groups or community colleges. Lastly, you might consider #6 and hire a freelance editor.
6. Can you hire a professional editor
If you have done all the drafts you can, received feedback from all the qualified readers you know, and you want to get a leg up on the other first time writers in a slush pile, you can hire a freelance editor. Working on a manuscript for queries, I would highly recommend a developmental editor. Someone who will read through the full manuscript and help you with character and story arc, convincing dialogue, find your writing “tics,” and help with the larger picture issues.
For writers who want to self publish, after the developmental editor, I highly recommend also hiring a copy editor. Someone to go through line by line and check your grammar, spelling, and style types of mistakes. Traditional publishers will put a manuscript through various rewrites and passes by professional editors. If you want to self publish, recognize you need at least as much assistance in this area as traditionally published authors.
Obviously, the ability to hire a freelance editor will depend on your financial situation. But keep in mind, you only get one shot with an agent. You’ve put months if not years into a manuscript, what is it worth to you to make it the best it can be? Even published authors sometimes work with professional editors before their new work goes to agents or their publisher. Consider it an investment in your writing career.
Don’t rush to submit just because you type “THE END.” You may not be finished, but you are on the road. Be proud of what you have accomplished. Then roll up your sleeves and get back to work!