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. 🙂

Comparing Yourself to Other Writers in a Query

Kristen asked the following a few weeks ago about a post I did on how to write a simple, compelling query. Here goes:

What about jumping straight into the query synopsis after the “Dear (Agent)” salutation, and sticking the “I am seeking representation for X” at the end? Also, I’ve been adding a sentence that goes something like this: “(Book title) will appeal to fans of (author) and (author)” — is this a pro or con?

Let’s get the easy answer out of the way first. This is your query. The order of the sentences that comprise it is completely up to you. Personally, I like to know genre/word count/basic stats on the manuscript up front, that way I don’t read a query out of context and then get surprised that the author was actually describing a 100,000 metafictional picturebook (hyperbolic on purpose) when I thought they were talking about a YA fantasy. It just helps me get my marbles all in order as I’m reading.

Now, on to the stickier part. As for drawing comparisons to other authors, you can do that all you want, but make sure it’s true. 🙂

Someone can say they’re J.K. Rowling crossed with Sarah Dessen until the cows come home, but I’ll be the judge of that. Rarely are people ever truly excellent at objective self-evaluation. Most people want to write like a Sara Zarr or a John Green or a Holly Black or a Neil Gaiman or a whoever, precious few actually do. In fact, drawing these kinds of comparisons is something I might do when I’m pitching your work to an editor. If you compare yourself to someone, your writing is excellent and I completely agree with you, you’ll make that part of my pitch easier!

So yes, theoretically, an author can take a looong step back, figure out exactly who their comp titles are and where they’ll fit in the market, let me know, and then we’ll dance into the sunset of publication hand in hand. More often than not, however, the kind of writers who draw comparisons between themselves and others (namely Rowling, Meyer, Brown and Patterson) are self-aggrandizing and delusional and don’t stand a chance of finding an analogous author because their writing is only comparable to one thing: drivel.

As with most things to do with publishing and the craft of writing, if you’re going to do it, make sure you do it well. That’s good advice for pretty much anything, I think.

Manuscript Length: How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

ChristaCarol asked this question of how long should a children’s book be via email. I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since it really is on people’s minds. I almost hesitate to get into this discussion publicly but, well, that’s never stopped me before. 🙂

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts.

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That’s a lot of words. How long should a children’s book be? Probably not this long.

How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully-chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everyday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, right now, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside.

Word Count Can Be Flexible

It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there.

Manuscripts That Are Too Long

I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic.

Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your word count is anything over 100k in children’s, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your babies,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

The Problem With High Word Count Manuscripts

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. 🙂

Ideal Manuscript Length for Children’s Books

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some maximum word counts for different types of projects.

How long should a children’s book be?

  • Board Book — 50 words max
  • Early Picture Book — 300 words max
  • Picture Book — 700 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picturebook — 2,000 words max
  • Early Reader — I’d say 1,500 words is the max.
  • Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level. 15,000 words max.
  • Middle Grade or MG — 35,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • Young Adult or YA — 70,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 90,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience. (Disclosure: Early Readers and Chapter Books are not my personal forte.) If a manuscript goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

The Problem With Early Middle Grade and Tween

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “Tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut!

And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

Do you need help bringing your manuscript word count up or down into an acceptable range? I am happy to be your developmental editor and suggest ways to expand or cut your work in a way that preserves your manuscript’s integrity.

Revising Before Contract

I did a post a few weeks ago that dealt with the types of rejection a writer usually receives from an agent or an editor. At least, these are the types of rejections I send. Now I want to talk a bit about the last type, the Revision Rejection.

This is as close as you can get to having an agent offer representation. This is basically an agent saying “I will give you revision notes and work with you like I would a client, but I have a few reservations and don’t want to officially offer you representation yet.”

On the one hand, this is great. A Real, Live Publishing Professional believes in you. On the other hand, it can also be tricky. I always consider everything very carefully when I offer a Revision Rejection because there are a lot of things at stake. The writer could take my notes to heart, do a revision, send it back to me and it still wouldn’t be strong enough. That puts both me and the writer in a nasty situation. I feel bad and the writer gets their hopes up.

I try not to offer too many Revision Rejections because, if I care enough about a project and love it enough to spend all this time thinking about it, I will usually offer representation and revise after contract with a writer. A Revision Rejection is if I do have some pretty substantial issues with the manuscript — a character, a plot point, a voice issue — but really think it could have great potential. The big thing I’m trying to figure out when I give this kind of rejection is whether or not an author can revise. Some authors will be great at revision, I can tell. Others, well, they get the Revision Rejection because I need to know for sure how well they tackle a revision before I sign them.

However, I want to give writers everywhere a complete picture of this tricky issue. If you’re faced with a revision rejection from me or any agent, it’s not something you have to listen to. I’d suggest waiting until you get some similar feedback before ripping your manuscript apart. If, however, my revision notes hit home and really resonate with you, you can revise and you’ll come out of the situation with a better book, even if the revision doesn’t end up being strong enough for me to represent.

Always use caution when revising for someone without a contract. It’s your book and your vision. Don’t let any one person’s reaction or notes pressure you into changing your project too drastically unless you agree with them. Just because I’m a Real, Live Publishing Professional, it doesn’t mean I know your book better than you do. I know my taste, I know the publishing marketplace, I know editors, but you’re the expert on your own work.

So a Revision Rejection is really good news, it means you’re a breath away from even better news, but you always have to take it with a grain of salt.

Writing A Million Bad Words

If you want to write well, all you need to do is write a million bad words. Easy, right? There are so many different iterations of this advice that I don’t quite know which genius began it all. I’ve heard it personally from Scott Westerfeld and Barry Lyga and Ally Carter and, hell, pretty much everyone. But the brunt of it is this: in order to get published or anywhere near publishable, you’ve got to write about a million bad words.

writing a million bad words, writing a novel, learning to write, fiction writing, creative writing
Better fill up on that coffee because you’ve got seven figures of words to churn out!

Why Writing a Million Bad Words Makes Sense

That’s right. A million of ’em. Only after you write a whole bargeload of BS will you a) start to recognize what’s good and b) start getting a handle on the craft. Yes. Start. Don’t open a Word doc, type until the word count reaches 1,000,000 and expect words 1,000,001+ to magically be Newbery-worthy prose. After a million bad words, Young Grasshopper, you will truly be ready to begin.

Hey, no grumbling! No “but I’m special and the exception to the rule” allowed! If you’re not published yet, you’ve still got work to do, my friend. If getting a novel published by a major house was an easy task, nobody would be pining away in offices or waiting tables. They’d all be sitting around in coffee shops, bent over their laptops. Getting published is not for everyone, not everyone will attain that goal, and it really has to be earned.

Fire Up the Writing Machine

Ally Carter has a great analogy: a garden hose that hasn’t been used in a while. Think about your own backyard. If you’ve got a pretty old hose there that’s been sitting through the fall and the winter, you’ve got to flush out all the leaves and gunk and spider webs first. When you turn on the water, it’ll be full of dirt. You have to get all of that out before the water can run clear.

That’s just what you’re doing when you begin your writing practice. By writing a million bad words, by turning on that garden hose and waiting for the pristine water, you’re getting all the bad story ideas, the flat characters, the predictable plot arcs, the cliches, the boring descriptions, the bad jokes, the overblown hyperbole, the bombastic scenery, basically, the crap, out of your writing system.

Once you’ve drained it all away, you’re left with a more agile and intelligent writing brain that can get cracking on the good stuff. Writing is a thing to be practiced, just like everything else. Write every day. Do it diligently and without ego until those million bad words are behind you. Then write every day, diligently and without ego some more. And, you know, if you’re feeling sympathetic to the Plight of the Slush, please don’t send me a sampling from that first million. I’m much more interested in words 1,000,001+. 🙂

I would love to be your fiction editor, no matter where you are on your creative writing journey. Whether it’s word one, or word one-million-and-one…

Types of Agent Rejection

Agent rejection is still rejection, sure,  but if you stick to writing for any length of time, you’ll soon begin to see that there are some nuances to getting turned down by an agent or editor. There are entire gradients of rejection and, the better your work, the higher you climb up the ladder toward that “yes” that you’ve been chasing.

agent rejection, slush rejection, types of rejection, query rejection, slush pile
Sure, it’s one discouraging word, but it can mean so many things!

Types of Agent Rejection

Here are the basic kinds of rejection I used to give as a literary agent:

Form Rejection: I reject the project but don’t give any feedback or thoughts. I will always personalize with your name and the name of your project but I don’t say anything specific about it. This is usually what I send when the writing isn’t solid enough, the voice doesn’t grab me, the idea doesn’t resonate, etc. You get one of these if your work is obviously not a fit for me, which I can tell almost immediately.

Personal Rejection: I still pass on the submission but provide general feedback. I will use this one either for a query that I thought had promise or an easily articulated flaw or sometimes for a full manuscript that falls short of what I was hoping for. Maybe the project shows potential but isn’t right for my list — which isn’t something the writer can help. Or maybe I have thoughts on how it could be improved before I’d consider representing it — which the writer can take into account if they wish. I don’t give detailed editorial notes, however, because I think the project shows promise but might be a little too much work to get into.

Revision Rejection: This is only for cases where I’ve read the full manuscript. In this situation, I’ve spent some time with the project and give the writer specific notes for revision. If they were to revise, I say, I’d love to see it again.

As you can see, there are several types of agent rejection. The rule of thumb is, the more personal the rejection, the more time the agent or editor spent with your work. And the more potential and talent they see. A Personal Rejection and a Revision Rejection are like doors that are half-open to you.

See Rejections as Opportunities

You can turn the two more personal types of rejection into opportunities. An agent who sends you a Personal Rejection would probably be up for seeing your next project. An agent who sends you a Revision Rejection would probably be enthusiastic to see another version of your current one. Especially if they took the time to give notes. In the grand scheme of things, this is relatively rare, so definitely don’t file it away as a simple “pass” and move on.

So keep querying and keep racking up those rejections. If you find yourself getting mostly Personal or Revision Rejections, that hard-won “yes” might not be too far behind.

Feeling unsure about your query letter, synopsis, or manuscript? Hire me as your freelance editor and we can work on your submission materials or dig deeper into your picture book, novel, or non-fiction proposal together.

It’s Easy to Get Published

Here’s one thing I want to get out of the way for all my readers, here and now: it’s easy to get published.

Commence wailing and gnashing of teeth from all the many lovely folks out there who have been chasing publication for years and years without The Big Success they’re dreaming of. Yes, let it out. I’ll wait. Done? Listen: it’s easy to get published when you have an amazing project. It’s not the agents or the editors or the literary magazines or the critique groups or the writing programs keeping you back from publication. It’s all about the strength of your project and nothing more.

I mean no disrespect to all the writers who are struggling and discouraged and beaten down on their search for representation or publication. In fact, I salute you all. It’s not an easy road you’ve chosen but I understand the compulsion to keep slogging down it. What concerns me, though, is the tendency for writers to immerse themselves in the publishing end of things and jump into the search when their time might be better spent really solidifying their craft. Publishing will be here (for the foreseeable future, anyway, *gulp*) while you work on your writing. Focus on that and we’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready.

Agents want amazing books. Editors are salivating to buy and publish amazing stories. If your writing is brilliant, your idea is unique, your hook a mix of the literary and the commercial, your character alive, your plot compelling — in other words, if your manuscript is like a lot of the published books out on shelves now — you will have no problem landing an agent and selling your work.

But it really has to be that good. And it takes nothing less.

So, it’s easy to get published once you and your work are ready. It’s the getting ready that’s hard and dreary and time-consuming. It’s the getting ready part that makes people quit. But if your goal is publication through a traditional channel (and that’s not the case for every writer, some people write for themselves and that’s perfectly fine) and you pursue it doggedly and relentlessly, you’ll get closer and closer to being ready. When you finally are, the things that seemed hard before — getting an offer of representation, getting a book deal — will slide into place. Because you’ve done all the hard work and you’ve persevered and it’s finally your time. For some, of course, that time is years and years and years and years in the making. But every day that passes and you sit down at the computer, your writing grows stronger. And you get closer to being ready. If you’re not published yet, that means you’re not quite ready for “prime time.”

I also want to address something a few readers have asked about on the blog. I use this space to highlight pet peeves of mine and common mistakes I see as an agent. Most of the statements I make are rather general. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. I could read a 2nd person rhetorical question query — something I normally hate — but if the project completely blows me away, any momentary annoyance will be completely forgotten. A writer in my slush could make every mistake in the book, break every rule, but the manuscript is all that matters.

And if it’s ready, you bet I’ll be taking it on.

Overthinking the Query

Shannon asked a question on my post about the second person and rhetorical questions in queries a few days ago, and I wanted to do a quick post in response:

Do you think that *any* question addressed to the reader of a query letter is irritating? Is it automatically “rhetorical” if you’re not actually there to give the author your feedback? I never thought that it might be a turn-off; I thought it was “marketing”. My goodness, this query business is intimidating.

I may completely misread your point here, but I do it intentionally, so stick with me. “Marketing” implies gimmicks to me, especially this early in the game. When you’ve got an actual published book out, then you can market your butt off (and should) to try and get people to buy it. At the querying phase, it’s not about selling and hustling at all.

Getting an agent means entering into a relationship because two people believe in a project and want to have a long working partnership. The author places a lot of trust in the agent and the agent works hard without any immediate gain. The choice to work together doesn’t originate from any flashy whiz-bang query letter shenanigans. You aren’t trying to trick an agent or use fancy misdirection in your query. You don’t try to “market” your way into a long-term romantic relationship, right? It’s the same thing here. The query exchange, to me, should come from a place of authenticity, as stripped free of gimmick as possible.

If you’re getting intimidated by a query letter, that might be a sign that you’re overthinking it. It’s very simple. Tell me about your idea and make me care. The query is just a way to attract interest in your writing sample, which is the heart of the matter anyway. Once I start reading your manuscript and love it, the query letter is completely forgotten. If you want an easy suggestion for writing an appealing letter, you can read a previous post about the kind of query I like to see here: Writing a simple, compelling query.

And if you are still iffy on what makes a good query and want to see some examples, go ahead and scroll back to the query contest I had, using the Contest tag. I’ve had a Novel Beginnings contest, too, so you’ll see some writing samples. Or you can swim on over to Janet Reid’s blog, Query Shark.

It might seem hypocritical for me to say: “Don’t worry about your query, you’re overthinking it! It’s easy!” while, at the same time, writing so much about queries, but that’s what people ask me about. A query is a writer’s first step into the agent search and, understandably, they want to get it right. So, while I have and will continue to dispense a lot of advice about queries, they’re really a much smaller deal — big picture-wise — than the manuscript that follows.

Querying With a Series and Series in General

This is the question I got the other week from Elan:

How do you feel about authors querying about a series? Is it important to mention that in the initial query letter, or is that something that can be discussed once an author/agent relationship is established? Let’s say the first book is complete but the others in the series are not.

Good question, Elan. This is something a lot of writers should be researching before they query because — if you’ve been under a rock for the last year or so and haven’t heard — the rules in publishing have changed a little bit since the economy tanked. This might not be my answer forever, but this is my answer right now.

Series have been snapped up left and right by the big houses in the recent past, ever since Harry Potter proved that you could keep the cash flowing for many, many books. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see two, three or even four-book deals right out of the gate, a healthy number of these going to debut authors. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal are three genres that lend themselves especially well to series and, if you asked the blogs a little while ago, they’d all say that writing “This project has strong series potential and I’m currently writing books two through five” in your query could very well be melodious to an agent’s ear.

Now houses are taking fewer risks. The average debut author is lucky if they can secure two books with their first contract. I was talking to an editor recently and she outlined the way her house has been approaching series: they buy the first book, maybe in a two-book deal but maybe as a stand-alone, release it, see how it does, and only then do they consider turning it into a series. If they do, they’ll commit through probably a trilogy (so two more books) or more. I like this model, maybe not from a bank account or a prestige standpoint but from an intellectual one. It’s cautious. It’s logical. It’s practical. It doesn’t assume the risk of a series right away, it makes the author and their debut earn the subsequent books. Intimidating thought, I know, but are you really in the writing gig for the easy money? 🙂 Didn’t think so.

This isn’t fun to hear for all the fantasy and paranormal and sci-fi writers who have planned seven-book story arcs. But it’s smart. Publishing can’t really be handing out four-book deals like candy anymore. It’s bad for the house because they’re spending a lot of money on untested talent and will have to compete in a very crowded fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi marketplace. It’s bad for the author, too, because the last thing you want people saying about you is: “Wow, poor writer, Publishing House gave her a four-book deal and the first book didn’t even sell that well. Now she’s stuck, her editor isn’t enthusiastic about the project anymore and the house lost a ton money. Bummer.”

It’ll be that much harder to get a new contract for future work from your publisher — why invest more in a product that doesn’t leave the shelves? — or attract a new house because everyone can see your dismal sales numbers. The conventional wisdom of “If a house pays more for a book or series, they’ll do more to promote it” isn’t necessarily true anymore. Big books and series still tank and, when they do, they tank big.

So, when you’re imagining a series in all its shiny, multi-book glory, the best thing you can do with the first book is make it a complete, stand-alone story. There’s definitely a pattern with series, in terms of what function each book serves. A trilogy, for example, will sometimes go like this:

  • Book One: set-up and background and initiation
  • Book Two: exploration and character development
  • Book Three: showdown!

But if you send an agent a book that’s all set-up and background info and initiation, it doesn’t stand alone. I’m going to say: “Well, that’s great, but what actually happens? This all seems like prologue…” There has to be a full and compelling plot, rich character development, a climax and a denouement for this manuscript, and it has to be satisfying, even if there are other books planned. And why wouldn’t you put all of your best work and your best effort into this first book? Don’t hold on to the good stuff for Book Six. You might never get there. If the market can only bear your debut, you should still feel good that you’ve created a wonderful story. Even if GRACELING didn’t have two other books attached to it, it would still have stood alone and been a perfect, utterly satisfying fantasy novel. That’s what it takes in today’s market.

I’d also warn unagented, unpublished writers away from developing an entire series and finishing all those manuscripts a) before querying and b) before landing a publishing contract for your first book(s). The most painful thing to see is seven completed series manuscripts that are gathering dust because the author couldn’t attract an agent for or sell the first one.

So when you query, do let me know if you’ve got a series in mind. But now, instead of hearing about how you’re working on Book Twenty-Nine, the following sentence would be music to my ears: “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone.*”

* And, you know, have this be true.

Send a Manuscript Sample Anyway

You will see many a frustrated agent harping over and over again that a writer should always follow submission guidelines. I will be the first to add my voice to the chorus: you should always follow submission guidelines!

But…you should always follow our submission guidelines. At ABLit, we request the first 10 pages sent along with the query. I’m here to say something a little controversial that might raise some hackles. I say, send the first 10 pages to all the agents you’re querying, even if they don’t ask for them. (Sorry, guys!)

Before we proceed, I will write one note of warning here — this advice is for Advanced Users Only. Your first 10 pages have to be solid gold, or you shouldn’t bother with this strategy. Try to take an objective look. Try to determine whether or not you’ve got Conference Polish Syndrome. If your first 10 are a marvel and the rest of the manuscript is even better, send them regardless of the guidelines.

Here’s why. When I read a query that catches my eye, I have absolutely no way of knowing if the writing is any good. And that’s all that matters at the end of the day. If I was judging a submission on query only, I’d have a very high chance of requesting something that ended up being totally off-base. Query writing does not equal manuscript writing, the two are completely different by nature. Or I’d request something and wait to receive it and forget what I liked about the query in the first place and so the sample would make no sense and I would’ve lost interest in the meantime or gotten busy with something else, etc. etc. etc.

If I do have some sample pages to examine along with the query, I can look at the writing  right away. There’s much less room for error in terms of requesting something that ends up a hot mess, and I have instant gratification. A query intrigues me and I can keep reading immediately. No wait, no chance to lose any enthusiasm. Sometimes, it’s a total let-down. Other times, I like the sample and get even more excited and request the full on the spot.

Before I joined the agency, I was an agented writer myself. My third manuscript and, hence, my third round of querying, landed me an agent (full disclosure: I am not longer with that agent, as that would present a conflict of interest). When I sent out only queries for my first two manuscripts, I got a lukewarm response and it took forever. With my third try, I decided to send 10 pages to everyone, whether requested or not. I think Sarah Palin might’ve called that a “mavericky” move. Almost everyone responded right away, the whole process took two weeks and I got offers from six agents. I’m not saying that’ll happen for everyone, but this strategy made it easy for an agent to a) read me right away, b) like me right away, c) get really excited. (Note to writers: I did mention above that this was my third try at getting an agent…that means I’d tried and failed several times. It takes a lot of practice to write a novel that agents consider publishable enough to offer on.)

That’s why I’m so happy the first 10 pages are part of our submission guidelines at ABLit. And I think there’s a good case for making it your submission strategy, regardless of guidelines elsewhere. Just make sure you paste the text in the body of an email if you e-query. Also, the “No attachments” part of many submission guidelines is one you really shouldn’t ignore.