Monday, November 14, 2011

The Writing Life: How do I know when my novel is ready to query?

Today we have a guest post from Elizabeth Lyon of Editing International. Elizabeth has been a freelance book editor for over 20 years and is a good friend to Idaho writers, having offered weekend workshops on multiple occasions in Coeur d'Alene. She has helped more than 60 writers to gain mainstream publication and a dozen writers to self-publish e-reader or print-on-demand books.

Lyon has authored five books about publishing and writing, including Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction, A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, and Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore.

“The Writer” magazine featured Manuscript Makeover as one of the “8 Great Writing Books of 2008,” describing it as “perhaps the most comprehensive book on revising fiction.”


How do I know when my novel is ready to query?

Brace yourself.

Stop sending out queries. Am I serious?

All writers are blinded by subjectivity. Few books are ready for publication but the writer is the last one to know this. What a conundrum!

Let’s assume that you have done everything you’re supposed to in order to have a completed, ready-to-publish manuscript. That means you’ve done several critical actions first:

• Finished your novel,
• Revised it multiple times,
• Gained feedback from a critique group or a circle of readers,
• Read Manuscript Makeover then
• Revise it another 3 or 5 or 12 times.

In addition, to gain marketing savvy you may have boosted your chances of winning in the marketing game by:

• Attending conferences to gain a quantum leap in understanding of the industry,
• Meeting agents or editors and pitched your book (trial runs on marketing),
• Entering contests, and
• Bagging publication of short stories.

You may be thinking, “That’s a huge amount of work. I’d rather be writing.”

Consider this: why should you expect to gain the prize—a contract, money, and recognition, if you have not fully pursued the education and apprenticeship that are prerequisites in other professions such as playing in a symphony, practicing law, or performing brain surgery?

Let’s say you have done most of the above items. You may even match the following demographic profile:

On average, novelists who break in have 4 novels sitting in a drawer.
On average, they have spent 10 years of writing, studying, and marketing.
On average, they have a million words under their belt.

To flip this serious blog around, many writers do see publication of first novels (or memoirs—equally difficult to write and publish), after spending only a few years, and some do nothing that is advised and succeed.

When you’re ready to query, sometimes the only way to find out if your book makes the grade is by jumping in. The proof is in the pudding. Test the market. First, you’ve got to write the query that gains a request to see your pages. Read The Sell Your Novel Toolkit. The query should be 5 to 7 paragraphs, the shorter the better. I’ve seen 3 do the job. If you are sending the query in the mail, your pitch must fit on one page—and don’t forget that SASE. Most agents now want e-mail queries. Some require submission via forms on their websites.

Edit and revise that query till you are sick of it. One writer I know spent 40 hours, literally, on her query. A successful query, in my opinion, gains 3 positive responses out of every 10, and that is what her query produced.

Now, test your query’s effectiveness by sending it to 6 agents via email. If you get rejections, revise your query. Be Teflon coated and let rejections slide away. If you get requests, send exactly what is requested and no more. If you get a request to mail your manuscript or a partial, add a 1- to 3-page synopsis—and an SASE.

Next, send out another batch of 6 or 12 or 30. Revise your query; subject it to scrutiny by critique group members or your resident OCD critical friend. Change the order of paragraphs. Amp it with stronger verbs and a stronger hook. Shorten sentences. Draw your hero in a way that shows original characterization.

Since many agents (or their assistants) read only a few paragraphs of a query or a few pages of a novel before they hit the delete key or slap the form rejection into the SASE, consider hiring a professional editor to do a critical read-through or full editing of 50 pages and a synopsis.

Obviously, I’m a big believer in using professional freelance book editors either prior to querying or after you know that your novel is apparently not making an agent yell “Eureka!”

When have you reached the flick-it-in time? You’ll have to decide. Maybe after 30 rejections. Or after 50. Or when Catnip walks over your keyboard and won’t let you send more.

History is rife with novelists who believed in their work and were soundly rejected only to self-publish, or find that one enthusiastic agent after 400 rejections. Some of these books later became bestsellers or Pulitzer winners. Traditional mainstream publishing is often too elitist, passing up books that deserve publication and are fully professionally written, and simply might not guarantee the bottom line return the publisher is seeking. A plague on all their publishing houses.

So what if your novel is ready to be published?

In that case, make it happen. You deserve to complete the circle from idea to creation to a book you can share. We are artists; we deserve an audience. With print-on-demand and e-book technology, the costs are relatively small (do your Google homework) and the satisfaction immense. With completion, you can move on to your next novel and eat your icing too.


Note: Elizabeth will be monitoring this post over the next couple of days and will be happy to respond to your comments.

To contact Elizabeth go to or e-mail her at


elizabethbrinton said...

Once again you have furnished me with a great gift, Elizabeth. I have been engaging in a bit of personal torment of late, thinking that I should be looking for an agent. As I am in the second draft of my novel, I am nowhere near ready. What a relief it was to read your sage advice. Whew!

Elizabeth Lyon said...

So glad you found the advice helpful and not discouraging (my fear in being what I think as realistic). Any writer, but especially someone who undertakes to write a novel or memoir has my admiration and respect. You really do have to do battle with inner demons to finish.

Between start and finish is a minefield for the insecurities that most of us have.

Hats off to you. Pop a bubbly of your choice to celebrate each finish. So you've got two bubbly celebrations under your belt.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

LOL - I think I spent more time writing queries and synopses than I did writing books. I still have nightmares about the time you told me to write one synopsis for plot and one for emotional journey and then put the two together.
But it was worth it. Every torturous hour paid off because I learned more about my character and was able to get that into the next revision.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

I have amnesia about giving you that advice. Are you sure it wasn't another Elizabeth Lyon. Would this editor ever do the equivalent of editorial waterboarding? Don't answer that.

I've learned more from you than vice versa. For those reading this blog who don't know yet, Carolyn J Rose has written half a dozen (or more) novels, mysteries and women's mainstream fiction, and worked as a subcontracting editor for me for years--a decade.

The synopsis: an MRI for a book doctor.

David said...

You do have a direct way of breaking the bad news! I just returned from the New England Crime Bake where the advice was pretty much the same. From novelists celebrating their first commercial success to pros like Barry Eisner, Michael Palmer, & Donald Bain, they all talked about the decade learning their craft and paying dues. With the impending demise of the legacy system including agents and New York publishers, what do you think the role of book doctors like you will be?

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

While I don't have a published book, I do write memoir, and look forward to reading your ' A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction' and 'Manuscript Makeover'. Thank you for the guidance, and encouragement you give to writers in boosting us to persevere

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Thank you for the comment, Kathy. Good luck!

David--you pose a very interesting question: What will be the role of book doctors as writers, perhaps in droves, leave the Old World for the New World?

My experience so far is that most writers really are artists. Although they want to see their books published, they want to make them the best they can be.

Substantive editing for improvement of craft and style helps point the way to higher levels of skill and mastery. Most of the writers I work with want to become better writers.

That said, I am intuiting that the number of revisions a novelist or memoir writer may be willing to do will possibly drop, because of the easy access to creating books and reaching an audience.

There is a particular type of frustration that strikes later, either later in a writer's progress from beginner to professional or later in the process of revising one novel.

Making final revisions, learning what "shading" and "texture" to do for the full polished draft, may go by the wayside. Frustration and irritation have to be quieted to regain any kind of new perspective to undertake final revisions.

Because the last character to emerge from the marble is the protagonist, a dash to self publish can leave the hero under developed and therefore keep the story short of its full potential.

On the other hand (no hard and fast answers), so what if one novel is not yet finished when it is published? The writer is at least released to begin another and in due time will very likely produce ever better writing. There are many ways to look at the implications on the process of revision and the role of book doctors.

Shifting gears, one change I am already seeing is an increase in requests for copyediting. If a self-publishing author wants to avoid egg on face, errors in print, then copyediting is a requirement. Shortcut that step, and the cost, and the author will regret it.

Long answer, David, but a very good question. Thank you!

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Elizabeth, thank you for your great advice. I was wondering, how much do you feel an author's platform plays into a mainstream publisher's decision to publish a completed, marketable manuscript? I know an established platform is a plus, but is it essential in today's market?

Elizabeth Lyon said...

The platform--and we're talking nonfiction not fiction--is almost the singular consideration for representation and sale to a larger publisher. That platform must include a well-developed section on social media, already set in place with great results and a plan for utilizing it after publication.

If a writer isn't stuck on success with a large house, medium publishers and small presses like huge platforms but will accept an author who is qualified and has a selling slant, a well-defined audience that is large enough to make a profit, and a well-developed promotional plan.