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?
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 www.elizabethlyon.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.