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When is a Manuscript Finished? When to Query?

Here’s an email question I got a few weeks ago from Maria, who is writing about her daughter:

My 13 year old has just finished writing the rough draft of her fist novel and is in the process of editing. Do we wait until she feels “finished” to send out query letters or should we do that now?

This question touches on three points, but the three points are related. The first point is knowing when the manuscript is ready to go out for agent consideration. I’m sure I’ll post more about this issue in many different contexts later, since “How do I know when this bloody thing is finally done?” is one of the biggest questions writers have. The second point is when to query an agent. The third point is teenage authors.

Point one: When is a manuscript ready? Think about getting to a point when you’ve worked it so long and so much that you’re frustrated with it and never want to see it again. Then tack a couple more revisions on there. Then you might actually be ready. A manuscript is ready when other people (who know what they’re talking about) have read it and ripped it apart and you’ve put it back together. At least twice. In my previous life as an aspiring author, I sent out manuscripts that I thought were ready. They weren’t and I collected a nice bouquet of rejections. You never truly know until you try, that’s true. But if you’re sending out of frustrations or out of a lack of ideas for what more you could possibly do to make it better, that’s when you should ask trusted readers for feedback and revise again. Speed benefits nobody in publishing, which is a notoriously slow business. You might as well take that time to really, really, really polish and perfect your submission.

Point two: When should you query agents? Simple. If you’re working in fiction, you should query when everything is absolutely, positively done. Don’t query something that’s half finished. If an agent wants to see it, a) you’ll have to get back to them and say “Uh, it’s not done yet” and b) it’ll force you, psychologically, to rush when you do try and finish, which is the worst possible thing you can do. Don’t query something that’s close to finished and then have an idea for a revision a minute after you send the manuscript to someone who requests it. Then you’ll a) have to send the agent an email asking if you can send a different version, which may or may not be awkward, and b) it’ll force you, psychologically, to rush, which etc. etc. etc. Send queries only when it’s ready and never resort to the Reassurance Query. Trusted readers (and NOT agents and editors) like a critique group or published, experienced writers should be your sounding board for all manuscript-related questions.

Part three: Teenage authors. It’s a tough call. Some agents will flat-out refuse to work with teenage authors because that means working with their parents also and all the different legalities involved. A teen author publishing an opus book is rare but it has happened. The biggest issue with teen authors, in my opinion, is something that totally can’t be helped. It takes a whole lot of time and practice to become a good writer. Time is something teens haven’t had a whole lot of yet. So when you and your daughter send queries around, Maria, do understand that some agents will have prejudices against you automatically, if you choose to mention her age. If she’s a crazy prodigy, mentioning her age might be an asset. Otherwise, it probably isn’t the boasting-point you’re imagining. I’ve been shocked by the maturity and quality of exactly two teen’s submissions in my career. One mentioned her age in the query, the other didn’t. He only mentioned it later, when I happened to say, ironically, that his writing read like it was for an audience slightly older than YA. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

The great thing about being a 13 year-old who has finished a complete novel manuscript is, of course, that with that kind of dedication — even if this first project doesn’t find a foothold in publishing, and it might not — she’s got nothing but time to keep writing and honing her craft. We should all be so lucky. :)

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  1. Patti’s avatar

    This is great advice and timely, as I’m about to head into the querying stage.

  2. Caitie’s avatar

    When do you think it’s approprite for teens to mention their age if they don’t in the query? This has been on my mind a lot as I don’t want to say it I’m the query and risk being prejudged (and I’m not blaming the agents, I just know that my generation is looked down upon) but I think that waiting till they offer representation is just rude. Should I tell them when they request a full? And how would I bring that up?

    ~ Caitie

  3. Mary’s avatar

    Caitie — You have to understand that it’s not because your “generation is looked down upon.” We work in children’s publishing and all read and represent books for your generation. We love you guys!

    It’s like I said in the post… learning how to write well, at a publishable level, takes two things: time and practice. Those are two things teens don’t often have simply because they haven’t been writing for long enough yet. If you don’t want to mention your age in the query, wait until the agent is responsive to you and you feel like they’re starting a conversation with you about your work, in the form of feedback or a full request, then let them know. It is an important consideration and, you’re right, you don’t want to wait too long.

  4. Bane’s avatar

    I’ve definitely reached point 1, though I’m never sure when done’s done (though my betas seem universally ok w/ it). Thankfully, I’ve never done a RQ, though I have made changes to the manuscript after querying (minor, minor ones that I don’t send along, thankfully :)

    And, man oh man, though I know my writing sucked worse back then, I so wish I were a teenage author again :)

  5. Mary’s avatar

    Ok, thanks for the advice – I’ll definitely keep that in mind.

  6. Caitie’s avatar

    Gah! Worst typo ever! I meant to say, “Mary, thanks for the advice – I’ll definitely keep that in mind.”

    This is exactly why people should not triple task… Sorry.

    ~ Caitie

  7. Siski Green’s avatar

    I have definitely been guilty of sending out queries before my stories or even my query were ready. My critique group is wonderful at slowing down my trigger-happy fingers, which are all too eager to press ‘send’ or ‘print’! And they’ve proven to me that there really is no such thing as clean, finished copy.

  8. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Great post. I’ve heard the one where if you’re sick of looking at your manuscript, revise a couple more times and you’re done. LOL. Funny, but true.

    I rely heavily on my crit group, which is established of both pubbed and unpubbed authors/writers, to help me figure out if I’m done revising and ready to send out.

    Have a great day.

  9. ted’s avatar

    I think if an aspiring writer has to ask whether or not his manuscript is done and ready to pitch to agents, the answer, most certainly: no, it’s not.

  10. Mary’s avatar

    Ted — I am dubbing you, from here on out, Ted the Wise. Great way of putting it. (I’ll let you be the snarky one, this time, hehe.)

  11. BJ Anderson’s avatar

    Lol, I agree with Ted on this one. Great topic, Mary, and one of the most important. I’m so glad I found your website!

  12. Elizabeth  Prats’s avatar

    I agree. Especially as a teenage writer myself. I learned the hard way at 16 after a pile of rejections. What Maria’s daughter needs is a critique group-It’s what we all need. Other writers to let us know if our work is ready or not.

    Or in her case an English teacher who would really be willing to give her honest feedback and a thorough evaluation of the work. Preferably one who enjoys the genre she writes in. Because even if Maria’s daughter is “going through edits” who’s to say they are the right kind of edits. Is she catching more than typos and grammatical mistakes. With time we learn more concerning plot and characters. I’m speaking from experience.

  13. Cassandra’s avatar

    I was intrigued by this post, and it was very helpful. Thanks!

    My thought is this: Why does it matter your age if you are a great writer? Some teenagers are great writers, and some are not – that’s a fact. But I think it’s a bit saddening that agents turn down great writers just because of their age. And why should your age matter, anyway?

    As a teen writer, attempting to become one of the rare few who do get their works published, I want to know: What if your parents are flexible, your age isn’t mentioned till later, and you’re a great writer? Is it possible?

  14. Mary’s avatar

    Cassandra — Teens should also be great readers. I wrote above that “A teen author publishing an opus book is rare but it has happened.” :) Of course it’s possible.

  15. Susan James’s avatar

    OK, I hope I don’t get cyber stoned for saying this. I was once 13 afterall and I have a 13 year old. She often says wise and wonderful things. She has many incredibly smart, talented friends (after all, they’re my beta readers *smile*), but the fact is they have not had all the experiences one gains from a longer life. And I can see that when I discuss books with them.

    One of the things that makes someone like Maureen Johnson a great YA author is that she can write from having been there and been through it. She relates very well to teens but her life experiences are in the voices of those books. That touch of life wisdom only comes with well, life.

    That’s not to say some teens aren’t mature beyond there years- some are and there are always exceptions to any statement concering people.
    However, in general, insight comes from having had time to step away and consider.

    There is no need to rush. If someone is talented at 13, they will still be talented at 18 and they’ll be legally capable of signing contracts. I can understand why an agent might be hesitant to take on such a young author.

  16. Mary’s avatar

    Susan — Thank you so much for your insight. You put it better than I could’ve. I don’t think this has anything to do at all with the merits of teen writers. But one part I clearly remember about being 13 (and, okay, this part still hasn’t gone away entirely for me) is how impatient I was. I thought that if I didn’t accomplish something huge by 18, then my life was over. Well, guess what… here I am, years later, and I’m still tickin’. And Susan is completely right… talent doesn’t go away. It just matures and deepens and turns into something absolutely wonderful with time.

    That’s not to say that teens should stop writing novels. Or stop querying agents. Or stop learning, as Cassandra and Caitie are doing (which totally rocks, I wish more adults would do this), about publishing. They should. They should write every day, and finish books, and hone their skills. But they shouldn’t get too impatient or worry about achieving everything now now now. Teen writers have time on their side. Not all of us can boast the same.

  17. Maria’s avatar

    Mary, thank you for your reply. It was very helpful as we discern what our next steps should be. Ironically, I am more excited about this first draft than my daughter is. She is very methodical and has been systematically rewriting and editing. She is not in any rush and is committed to creating something of excellence. I thought that being 13 would be a selling point. I can see that it is not necessarily the case. She has decided that she will not mention her age when she is finished. She wants the book to be considered for it’s own merit and not because she wrote it as a teen.

    I have read some of the comments and would like to point out that maturity doesn’t necessarily make someone a great writer. Life experience also varies between adults. My daughter has had the privilege to travel and experience more at 13 than I did by 25. I believe a good writer is fifty percent talent and fifty percent discipline. If you have the first and are committed to the second you will be successful at whatever age.

  18. Ellen Hopkins’s avatar

    Maturity doesn’t necessarily make someone a good writer. That is true. However, there is a certain perspective that comes with age. Having traveled extensively is, of course, a good thing. But it can’t replace years of living as far as developing multi-layered characters, or plots that don’t rely only on imagination (as opposed to pulling from a wider range of life experiences).

    Maria’s daughter should keep writing and yes, if she’s brave enough, submitting. But the inevitable rejection that is a part of that process can hurt a teen more than it does an adult. She needs to develop a thick skin, learn from the rejections she will most likely get (we all, with just a few exceptions, did!) and grow from them. This is the writer’s journey, and the road should be as compelling as reaching the end result–publication.

  19. Mary’s avatar

    Ellen — I think that last paragraph should be required reading for all writers. Thanks for stopping by the blog!

  20. Jenny’s avatar

    Hmm.. yes. Wish I’d read this post about two months ago!! Thanks anyway! I can now safely plunge ahead with more information!

  21. Sumner Wilson’s avatar

    Dear Mary:

    “Jonseying?” The last I heard the term “Jones” used was in the context of drug use. A Jones is an addiction–or was thirty years ago. But, who knows about today. Please set me straight on this, and do so soon.

    Thanks,
    Sumner Wilson

  22. Sera Rivers’s avatar

    This is great information. I am tutoring a 14-year-old girl who is writing her first novel. I had no idea that most publishers frowned upon teen authors. This is good information to know when we are ready to send out queries. It will be a long time until that happens. We are still in the beginning of the first draft. I will keep this info in the back of my head for the future.

  23. kathleen barker’s avatar

    I agree with the advice regarding after others have read it and ripped it apart. I gave my first novel to friends and neighbors who kindly read it, but weren’t too shy to tell me if they felt something didn’t fit, was too slow or too racy. I wound up adding as well as deleting some chapters after that.

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