Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How Do You Know When Your Book is Cooked?

Simple Answer?  When someone with a proven track-record in publishing tells you it is...  but here's the long story:

In my naivete of being a first-time novel-writer, I started submitting my manuscript far too early.  Last year, only six months after completing the manuscript, I took a stab at submitting.  I was encouraged by a handful of 'Please Send's, and some requests for the full manuscript... but no offers were forthcoming.

I revised some more and in April this year, put out another round of submissions.

By June I'd heard back from everyone.  Of just over twenty submissions I'd had eight requests for the partial manuscript and four requests for the full.  But no offers of representation.

Why?  My book needed more work.   Of the agents who read only the partial the feedback was consistent.  Here's a quote from one agent that summed up the consensus:

"Although [the book] has an interesting premise, I can't offer you representation based on what I read. I judge on several levels, but the most important question is: do I have to read more? In this case, I couldn't answer with a yes. I'm sorry!"

And what about those fulls?  Of the four agents who read the full manuscript, three suggested they'd seriously considered offering representation.  And the reason they didn't?   Again, a quote from a top, New York agent that seemed to hit the overall tone:

"There is a clever plot here, and some real power in the writing. Unfortunately, I simply don’t have the time to work with you to take it to where I think it needs to be."

This and other emails were very generously filled with specific advice on what parts of the manuscript were lacking, offering some guideposts for revision.  But in the end, the message was received:  The manuscript needs A LOT more work. 

So I knuckled down this year.  No submissions between April and October, instead I made use of the resources available to me from professional writers with whom I'd built relationships.  I listened to advice on plotting, characterisation, grammar.... everything!  At each stage, I thought "is it ready?" and at each stage, a more knowledgeable, more experienced writer than myself would say 'no'.

And I'm glad they did.  Because now, having finished the final revisions, put the work (with serious help from a mentor) into those pesky sub-plots that just seemed like too much mental energy, taken instruction on (horrors!) grammar and punctuation, and cut out EVERY SINGLE NON-ESSENTIAL word... my book is ready.

How do I know?

I know because it finally reads the way I was always aiming for:  Tight.  Sharp.  Without rambling.  Without leaving anyone wondering what that sentence meant, or why the protagonist made that particular decision.

But most importantly, I know it's ready because people who have finished, submitted, edited and published books before told me it is. 

Like, my agent. 

So, here's my advice:  When you're reading through your 'finished' manuscript and you get that flash of an idea about how you might develop that second-tier character's story, or that maybe the protag's motivation in this scene is just a little flimsy, listen to that voice.  Those problems won't go away.  Doors aren't likely to open while they remain in place.  But when you put the work in, those same doors will fly open so hard and fast they rebound and catch you in the nose as you're walking through.

Here's the take-away:  Accept you don't know everything.  Accept you may not even  know much at all.  Find others who have proven themselves and let them tell you what you need to hear.  Put the work into taking their advice and the results will be worth it.

NEXT on Seeking the Write Life:  The website that will help you identify where and how your submission materials are lacking!

QUESTION:  Have you made submissions and found the doors closing instead of opening?  What do you think is at the root of the problem?  What are you doing to solve it?


  1. Nice post. I had to do a major overhaul of my manuscript after my first round submissions came back with many similiar responses. I knew I had a good story, but I needed to work on trimming the fat. And that's what I did. My manuscript is out on second round submissions as a much stronger project, and the results have definitely shown that so far.

  2. This is great advice, thanks so much for sharing your journey :)


  3. Christi - I know the feeling. Good luck! Let me know how it goes.

    Rach - No problem, thanks for stopping by.

  4. That's great that you had a mentor and others that were further ahead in the game--specific (and even general) feedback from strong writers can really help get you on the right track. I've submitted before I was ready before and it didn't get me very far. I'm glad I took the next step, got critique partners, and started studying the craft more. I've learned so much since then and I know my work is more solid and polished now.

  5. Hi Cindy, you're right, there's no doubt it was a huge blessing to have a mentor and the people nearby to offer good advice. But you've nailed it when you mentioned critique partners, etc. I think the trick is to find people who are further ahead (published if possible). Their eyes are much sharper. And studying the craft is a must. I'm sure your work will take off very soon!

  6. Great post! I'm a perfectionist, and just the idea of submitting something that's not ready frightens me, but I wasn't sure how I would actually KNOW when it is ready!

  7. Great advice. I need to listen to those inner voices, because sometimes they're telling me what I need to hear.