When is your manuscript ready to query? It’s the question every writer asks at least once. I don’t know about you, but I’m incredibly impatient, so I tend to want to hurry up and start querying. I queried my last manuscript too early. It still needed work, but I thought “hey, I’ve got a good second draft, let’s see what happens.” I got some requests, but no bites, because it wasn’t ready.
So I’m forcing myself to go slow with my current WIP. I’m on my fourth draft and I’m still not sure if it’s ready. The ugly impatient gnome in my head keeps popping to the surface. “Just do it,” he whispers. “It’s fine. It’s good enough. Query already!”
I have to smack him back down like I’m playing Whack-A-Mole at Chuck-E-Cheese. (Side note: I love that game! My college roomie bought a hand held version one night–cause that’s what we needed to spend our money on–and we played it constantly). The gnome has me thinking, though. When will it be ready? How will I know? I mean really, I’m my own toughest critic. I could probably tweak and change and edit forever and never think a manuscript was good enough.
So, how do you know?
I have no idea.
I think it’s a gut thing, but there are a few guidelines I recommend following.
1. Don’t submit a first draft. Please don’t. Not even Stephen King runs with his first draft.
2. Have someone else read it. Not a relative, not a friend, not even anyone you know. If you want to know if your work is actually worth reading, give it to a stranger. There are plenty of forums like Absolute Write and Agent Query Connect to find good beta readers and critique partners. Let someone who doesn’t know you from Adam read it–they’re way more likely to be honest.
3. While you’re at it, grow thick skin. I had a beta recently who was nervous to point out some flaws in my manuscript. I’d told her I have thick skin, but a lot of people say that and don’t mean it. It’s not easy to receive criticism, but that’s the only way you’re going to get better. It’s like pouring alcohol in a wound. It hurts like the dickens, but you’ll be better afterward. In C.S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” one of the characters, Eustace, turns into a dragon. The only way to become a boy again is for him to scratch off the scales. It’s a long and painful process, but he does it, and when he comes out, he’s a better person. Now, that scene is a metaphor for a lot of things (namely, Christianity– Paul’s statement that you must die to yourself), but it fits here. In sports, many coaches sum it up as “no pain, no gain.”
4. Write your query and synopsis. It’s not fun. At all. But writing the query can, a lot of times, help you find flaws and plot holes in your story.
5. Edit. A general rule of thumb: if one person gives you a comment, take it with a grain of salt and use you judgment on whether to change something. If multiple people give you the same comment, you should probably change it.
6. This part sucks. Go through another round of betas. I always try to have at least two rounds, and they should be different people each time. Get fresh eyes on your newly edited manuscript to make sure your edits work.
7. Edit again, incorporating any changes from the latest betas. If there are still big issues to fix, you may have to go through a third round. If it’s small things, you can move on to the next step.
8. Nit-pick edits. Read your manuscript aloud. Yes, people will look at you weird if you do it in public, and your dog/cat may be entirely confused if you do it at home, but the best way to catch the cadence of a sentence and find errors is to read it aloud. Your eyes tend to skate over words like “the” “and” and “your/you’re.” You catch these things easier reading aloud, even if you’re just mumbling to yourself like a crazy person at the back table of the coffee shop. Just tell people you’re a writer–we have a history of being a bit nuts.
9. I like to run my manuscript through websites like YA Story Analyzer. This thing is amazing. You plug in your manuscript–it will take up to 60,000 words at a time–and chose what you want it to do: basic summary, sentence summary, repetitive sentences, highlight homonyms, pacing and flow, etc. Then it analyzes your entire text. The basic summary, for instance, finds cliche phrases, tells you the frequency of overused words (like “just” and “really”), gives you the percentage of “be” verbs and redundant phrases (“but yet” “up until”), and ends with your word count and grade level. I love it. It can be time consuming, but I think it’s so worth it.
10. Listen to your gut. If you feel ready, then query. You can’t sit around on a manuscript forever. Make it as good as you possibly can, then send it off into the world and cross your fingers, or pray, or turn in circles shaking your lucky pens over your head, or whatever you do. Then go work on your next manuscript to keep your impatient gnome at bay while you wait for a response.
That’s my process. Everyone is different and everyone will have different advice. I’ve learned so much since I wrote and queried my first manuscript (which definitely wasn’t ready!) and I’m still learning. My current manuscript isn’t quite ready to query, but I’m close. I can feel it. Hopefully soon I’ll be praying and shaking my lucky pens while I wait for a response.