When Your Novel Is Ready For Agents – 6 Tips

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.

Resources: Writer’s DigestTwitter

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NaNoWriMo Tips – Tricks to Reach Your Goal

NaNoWriMo is rapidly coming to an end (where did November go?), and I’m sure by this point many of you are feeling the wear and tear.

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So, I thought I’d offer up some tips on how to push through the last chunk. Even if you’ve fallen behind or decided to completely start over, these tricks are sure to help you reach your goal (be that writing 50K words by November 30th, or finishing an entire novel by next November).

Writing Sprints

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This is, by far, my favorite strategy when it comes to getting work done. I set my watch for an allotted amount of time (one hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, etc.) and then GO! During that time, I’m not allowed to do anything but write. No internet, no phone, no eating, no nothing! The only things I’m allowed to do is write, write, write. Once I hit my goal, I can take a break. Check my emails, skim Facebook, get another cup of coffee…Then I set my watch again and GO!

I recommend this strategy to all writers at all stages of the writing process (not just during NaNoWriMo). Even if you’re editing, you can use this method to get a lot of work done. It’s all about forcing you to focus.

Hermit Day

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My second favorite strategy is setting aside one whole day a week to write. I lock the doors, close the blinds, and commit my entire day to being a hermit. Chores get skipped, the gym gets ignored, and invitations get turned down.  I don’t even bother brushing my hair or getting out of my pajamas. For 12-hours, I put all of my focus into my story.

Again, I recommend this strategy to all writers, whether they’re NaNo’ing or not. However, I understand not all writers have the luxury to shut out the rest of the world for an entire day every week (let’s face it, being single and childless definitely has its advantages). But even if you can’t block out an entire day, hopefully you can block out a chunk of time (even a couple of hours) each week to focus 100% on your project. No distractions, no interruptions. Just you and your novel.

Race another writer to the finish line

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Last year during NaNoWriMo, I–inadvertently–got into a competition with a writing buddy. It happened a couple of weeks into NaNo. One night, my friend casually asked me what my word count was. The next day I casually asked him. Then, before we knew it, we tumbled into a race to the finish line. Every day we–good-naturedly–flaunted our word counts to each other. Somedays he’d outdo me, somedays I’d outdo him…To tell you the truth, I can’t remember who reached 50K words first. But, it doesn’t matter. The point was, we pushed each other to not only reach our goals, but exceed them.

This is a great method to use if: 1) you have at least one competitive bone in your body, and 2) you have a trustworthy friend to “compete” against. Don’t team up with a writer who will rub your face in it or taunt you for “losing.” Find someone who will positively push you to the finish line (even if they beat you to it first).

Treat Yo Self!

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Reaching our goals is great. Reaching our goals and getting a “treat” for it is even greater! As you hit a milestone, pat yourself on the back and give yourself something for all of your hard work. It could be glass of wine, a nice dinner, a day off, a new book, whatever. The choice is yours. For me, it’s a chocolate chip cookie dough sundae.

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This is what awaits me at the end of my designated writing day. It’s right there in my freezer, taunting me. Telling me, “Hey, if you reach your goal, you can have me. If not, too bad. Better luck next time.” So, even when I’m not in the mood to write, I’ll push through just so I can get my hands on some ice cream.

This is another strategy I recommend to all writers. Why not reward yourself for your hard work? Just stay honest with yourself. Personally, I like to publicly announce my goals via social media. That way, I feel like others are keeping me accountable. If I announce I’m going to try and write for nine hours, then I have to try and write for nine hours. And if I hit nine hours, then I get my delicious treat!

Whether you’re trying to finish NaNoWriMo on time, or finish a novel at any time, you need to find ways to keep yourself on track. And I hope one of the tips above help you do that.

What about you? What are some of your favorite tricks to reach your goals?

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10 Tips For NaNoWriMo

Every year, I debate whether or not I’m going to participate in NaNoWriMo. It always depends on what project I’m currently working on and what stage of that project I’m in.

This year, I’m not participating.

I really am sad, because I love NaNo! But I’m knee deep in the sixth (er, seventh?) draft of my novel at the moment, so it’s just not the right time to sit down at my computer and word vomit all over the place. However, if you’re looking to word vomit (er, whip out a draft of a new or old project), then NaNo’s perfect for you!

50,000 words in one month…Are you up for it?

Yes? Great! As difficult as it is, NaNoWriMo is an awesome experience. In fact, I think every writer should give it a shot at least once in their career.

To help those brave souls who’ve decided to take on the daunting task of writing a novel (well, a big chunk of a novel) in a month,  check out my top ten tips for surviving NaNoWriMo.

Jen’s Top 10 NaNoWriMo Tips

1. Decide Why You’re Participating

 “I dunno, I signed up just because.”

No, no, no! Don’t say this when people ask you why you’re doing NaNoWriMo. Give a valid, reliable, motivating reason to participate:

“I’ve been slacking lately and need a kick in the butt.”

“I have a great idea for a novel.”

“People say NaNo’s impossible. I’m gonna prove them wrong!”

Whatever your personal motive, make sure you have one. Don’t sign up for NaNoWriMo “just because.” If you do, you’ll likely fail. You’ll inevitably hit a rough patch and think, “Ugh, why am I even doing this? Forget it. I’m done.”

2. Just Write! 

 NaNoWriMo is a great way to start or finish the first draft of a novel, or to completely rewrite an old one. It’s not a great way to revise or edit a novel. And it’s definitely not a great way to write a masterpiece that’s ready to be published on December 1st. Nope, sorry!

So, stop stressing about making things perfect, resist the temptation to edit or revise along the way, and don’t get upset about a watered down plot or 2D characters.

JUST WRITE!

Close your eyes, open your mind, and tap, tap, tap your fingers against your keyboard. And, remember, this is a rough draft. You won’t be showing it off to many (if any) people. So, let the words flow and don’t stop to question them. If you do, you’ll never make it to 50K by November 30th.

3. Don’t Skip Days

The first time I participated in NaNo, I missed the first three days because I was in a writing contest. And after that, I missed a few more days because, well, I missed them. Life happened. I didn’t feel like writing. I was tired. I had better things to do. Etc., etc.

Bad idea.

Missing one day is okay. Not good, but not horrible. But after one day, the word count deficit starts to pile up–fast! Within one week of my first NaNo, I was behind schedule by 10,000 words, and the only way I was going to catch back up was to increase my daily word count–ack!

Do yourself a favor and spit out those words every day, even if you don’t feel like it.

4. Be Proactive

Don’t live on the edge if you don’t have to. Give yourself a word count cushion.

After I climbed out of the deep, dark word count abyss I’d fallen into, I decided to take the bull by the horns and get ahead of schedule. On days I had extra time, energy, and motivation, I blasted past my daily goal and kept writing. Why not? Who knew how I’d feel the next day, or if my life would blow up and I wouldn’t be able to sit down and write?

Because of this “get ahead” strategy, I was able to finish almost a week early.

5. Find an Idea You Love

When you hit those “ugh” moments, or you’re just flat out tired, it’ll be your passion and excitement for a story that gets you through. So, make sure choose one you love. Find a plot you want to explore and a cast of characters you want to know better. They should have the power to enthrall and entice you, and keep you motivated on a daily basis.

I promise, if you feel “meh” about your story before you start it, you’ll feel “meh” about it the whole time. And, sooner or later, you’ll throw in the towel.

6. Evolve With Your Idea

There is a very good chance the story you set out to write won’t be the story you end up writing. This is especially true for those of us who are “pantsters” rather than “plotters.” We assume we’re going to take a left at the fork, but end up taking a right instead. That’s okay.

Remember: JUST WRITE!

Don’t add constraints or limit yourself because the story “was supposed to go this way.” Go with the flow and see where things take you. After all, this isn’t a final draft. It’s an exploration of the story you will–hopefully–continue pursuing long after the November 30th deadline.

7. Embrace a Love-Hate Relationship

 Even if you’re infatuated with your story, you’ll probably become infuriated with it at some point. You’ll have moments when you question your concept, or realize you despise a certain character, or fear you chose the wrong path back in chapter five.

It’s okay! First drafts aren’t meant to be perfect or 100% lovable. They’re ugly, troublesome, and, more often than not, a total nightmare.

So, accept the inevitable love-hate relationship you’ll have with your story, remind yourself you’ll be able to revise those despicable spots in the future, and keep chugging along.

8. Lean On Other Writers for Support

I often tell people, “Writers have their own language.” And, it’s true. We do. We naturally understand each other and are able to relate to each other’s woes. So, why not befriend a few? Trust me, you’ll need their cheers, pep talks, and internet hugs to survive the NaNoWriMo roller coaster.

If you aren’t sure where to find potential writing pals, here are a few suggestions:

  1. NaNoWriMo’s website. It allows you to network and make solid connections. If you’d like to add me as a buddy, my username is jenspenden.
  2. Twitter. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met there and have created genuine, supportive friendships with. Be sure to check out hashtags like #NaNoWriMo, #NaNoWriMo2016, #NaNoPrep. And, of course, feel free to follow me (@jenspenden). I’ll happily follow you in return!
  3. Writing Blogs. Follow them, read them, and leave genuine comments on posts. If you do, you’ll naturally connect with other writers.
  4. Writing Contests. This one might sound strange, but some of my best writing friends have come from participating in writing contests, especially those that allow you to interact with other competitors (ex: NYC Midnight).

Whatever your method, I highly recommend you befriend other writers. Life becomes so much better once you do.

9. Have Fun! 


I mean it. Enjoy the experience. Yes, NaNo is stressful, insane, and a lot–a lot–of work. But nobody is forcing you to do it (well, I hope not). So, why not have fun with it?

Whenever I hit a low point during NaNo, I like to sit back in my chair and laugh at the absurdity of writing 50K words in one month. Who does that? Seriously? Or I like to take a deep breath and embrace my accomplishments. I figure every word I write deserves a round of applause, even if it wasn’t the best word in the world.

10. Worst Case Scenario

The worst thing that can happen? You don’t reach the 50K goal by November 30th.

Big. Deal.

Okay, maybe it is a big deal and you want to focus on that goal to keep you motivated. Great! However, in my opinion, the point of NaNoWriMo isn’t to barf out 50,000 words for the sake of barfing out 50,000 words. It’s to help writers focus and kick-start a steady writing routine that carries them past the November 30th deadline.

So, if you’re approaching the deadline, and you’re nowhere near the 50K word finish line, who cares? Keep going. Keep writing! The only true failure in NaNoWriMo is giving up completely.

Well, there you go! I hope you found at least one of my tips for NaNoWriMo useful. Good luck, everyone! And remember:

JUST WRITE!

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