As many of you might’ve noticed, my blog has fallen by the wayside the past year. In my defense, there’s been a good reason for my absence: my novel. Last January, I made a New Year’s resolution to finish my manuscript and have it ready for agents by late 2017/early 2018. That meant I had to resist using precious time and mental energy for things like blogging, social media, writing contests, and other enjoyable but, unfortunately, non-novel work.
Despite missing out on all the fun, I’m pleased to say my method of madness has worked. By the end of the year, I’ll have a novel ready for agents!
As exciting as it is to take the next step in the publishing journey, it’s important to know when to take the next step. Many writers tend to rush through the process, while others hesitate and question if they’re really ready.
Here are six tips to help you decide if your novel is ready for agents:
1: You’ve written at least two complete drafts.
Unless you’re a seasoned pro who knows how to pound out a perfect first draft, then you’ll need to write, revise, and edit at least two drafts before you deem it worthy of an agent’s eyes. Depending on your process, you’ll likely write many, many more. Personally, I’m a pantser and I’m approaching my 20th draft.
Because we all have different processes, there’s no exact number of drafts needed to deem a novel “done.” The best thing to do is to ask questions like these:
- Is my plot fully developed? Are there any missing scenes? Do I have any scenes that can be chopped to tighten the story?
- Are my characters believable? Likable? Do I have any unnecessary characters?
- Do I have plenty of conflict?
- Does my pacing work well?
- Is my dialogue organic?
- Have I proofread? Like, a million times?
- Have I asked others to critique my work?
- Does anything about the story bother me?
Whether it takes two or 20 drafts, we need to flesh out our stories and polish them up before we send them to agents.
2: You’ve recruited beta readers.
Some writers will write a chapter and share it with critique partners. Others will write 15 drafts before they feel comfortable sharing a single word with a single soul. There’s no right answer on how we share our work, just as long as we share it before sending it to literary agents. Otherwise, we’ll likely miss glaring plot holes, spelling and grammar blips, underdeveloped characters, and many other problems.
The real question is how many beta readers should we use? Well, once again, it’s an individual choice. There’s no magical number. However, there’s such a thing as too few and too many beta readers.
If we only use one beta reader, we’ll likely miss out on critical feedback. Why? Because every beta reader is different. Some are great at critiquing plots and characters. Some are better at correcting grammar. Some love to focus on pacing and pure entertainment. Some delight in dissecting every. Single. Word.
On the flip side, if we send our manuscript to 15+ beta readers (especially all at once), then we’ll likely regret our decision. Too much feedback, and we’re bound to feel overwhelmed and confused. In fact, we’ll likely experience a small meltdown and question everything we wrote.
Personally, I handled my beta readers like this:
Beta Draft 1: Four readers who were asked for big picture feedback. I simply wanted to know if the plot and characters worked. (And if not, why?)
Beta Draft 2: Five readers who were asked to point out any and all flaws. Plot, grammar, characters, pacing. ANYTHING!
Beta Draft 3: Five readers who were asked to pretend they found my novel in a bookstore and read it for fun. If it wasn’t fun, or if something stopped them dead cold, why?
The strategy has worked very well for me. But, again, every writer is different. Some might only need a couple of betas. Some might need more. The important thing is to recruit at least two, and ask them to point out the good, the bad, and the ugly.
3: You’ve reached a solid, marketable word count.
No matter what genre we write, we need to know word count expectations. If we send an agent a chick lit novel that’s 115K words, they’ll likely laugh and toss our query into the trash. However, if we send a historical fiction novel that’s 115K words, an agent will probably consider it. All genres have a general range agents expect our story to land in. Only a few get the “okay” for larger word counts (sci-fi, historical fiction, and fantasy).
When it comes to adult fiction, Writer’s Digest breaks it down like this:
80,000 – 89,999: Totally cool
90,000 – 99,999: Generally safe
70,000 – 79,999: Might be too short; probably all right
100,000 – 109,999: Might be too long; probably all right
Below 70,000: Too short
110,000 or above Too long
Before we submit our manuscript to agents, we need to research our genre. It’d be a crying shame to realize our MG novels are 40K words too short, or our thrillers are 20K words too long.
4: You start overthinking things.
Many writers are perfectionists. Some of us are so focused on making our stories so perfect that we fail to realize we’ve crossed through the Perfect Zone and entered the Overthinking Zone. We start chopping words unnecessarily, dramatically alter flowing sentences, and tweak characters to the point we ruin what made them so special in the first place.
A few ways to know we’ve reached the Overthinking Zone include:
- Beta readers tell us, “Stop! You’re ready for the next step.” (Let me emphasize this “green light” needs to come from those who’ve read the manuscript. Don’t let friends, family, and other writing pals pressure you into skipping important steps. They don’t know where you’re at in the process. Your betas do.)
- Edits become infinitesimal. (i.e. You change the word “stare” to “gape,” and then back to “stare.”)
- We’ve proofread our story to death (and asked others to proofread it to death for us).
The truth is, many of us will never consider our stories perfect. Ever. Even if it lands on the New York Times Best Seller list, we’ll still find flaws. It’s just who we are. That’s why we need to recognize when it’s time to step back, close our eyes, and take a leap of faith.
5: You’ve prepped all of your submission materials.
If we choose the traditional path of publishing, then we need to be prepared to submit more than our manuscript. Most agents will require a query letter, but from there it varies. A query letter might be all an agent wants. Others might request a three-paragraph synopsis. Some might want a three-page synopsis. And then there’s the dreaded pitch to practice in case we need to present our idea verbally. For example, when I optioned my YA novel to a Hollywood producer, I had to pitch my story dozens of times to various executives (usually via an unexpected phone call (talk about nerve-racking!)).
If we are lucky enough to receive that spectacular, dream-worthy phone call from an agent, we also need to be ready to speak to that agent. In fact, we shouldn’t query an agent until we’ve done homework on them. Remember, these are the people who will determine if our books (and our careers) rise or fall. We need to know what type of agent they are. Are they hands-on? Distant? Better at negotiating deals than developing projects? Are they great at both? For me, I want an agent who cares. The last (and only) agent I had treated me like a chore. I’d get a call once every three to six months with an update on the status of my project. That was it. Granted, this was a Hollywood agent who had bigger fish to fry, but still. I learned my lesson: before committing to an agent, ask questions. We need to know who we’ll be partnering up with.
Bottom line, take the time to properly prepare your submission materials, and research agents. It’ll make life easier and happier if you do.
6: Your novel is presentable at a moment’s notice.
Let’s face it. Writing a quality book is hard, and it takes for-evvver! And it’s really, really tempting to skip to the end of the process and see if an agent would even read what we have.
Resist the urge!
One of the biggest no-no’s a writer can make is querying an agent before a novel is finished. Agents don’t want concepts, first chapters, or half finished manuscripts. They want the whole thing–and they want it on demand. So, before we send our query letters, we must have a polished, 100% COMPLETE manuscript.
“Eh, an agent is probably going to take at least a month to respond to my query, so I may as well send it and continue editing.” Nope, don’t do it! Just because we’re almost done with our book doesn’t mean we’re done. Besides, what happens when an agent asks for our book in less than a week? Maybe even sooner? I’ve had a full request within two days. It happens. Play it safe and polish up the story before hitting the submit button.
Some writers are impatient and want to speed through the writing process. Others drag their feet, despite their eagerness, and want everything perfect before they contact agents. We all need to know when we’re truly ready to take the next step. We can’t rush to the finish line, but we also can’t keep running lap after lap.