Monday, May 25, 2009

When are you ready to query an agent? -or- 254

Litgirl01 asked: How many edits does one usually go through before querying an agent? When do/did you know that your book was ready to send to an agent? I can't imagine ever feeling like I am finished and ready to submit. :-)

Frustratingly, I think the answer to this question is as impossible to know as is the answer to “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?” Some people submit before the manuscript is ready, and for those who wait successfully, describing the right moment requires complex calculations that take into consideration tongue surface area and wetness.

But, I wanted to discuss this topic anyway, since I’m currently on the brink of making such a decision. Back in January I initially thought my book was ready to go. I submitted it to three agents, got turned down by three agents, and after discussing it with a new friend, I decided to revise it one more time. Now, once again, I’m preparing to submit soon, and my emotional state is different from what it was back in the beginning of the year.

Put simply, I think I’ve outgrown my novel.

When you’re a beginning writer, as I consider myself to be, the slope of your learning curve is steep. Your brain is picking up new tips and tricks by the minute. Somehow, though, that knowledge doesn’t properly transmit down your neck and arms to the tips of your fingers. Try as you might, you probably have much more trouble creating your own masterpiece than recognizing quality or lack of quality in other people’s writing. So, you revise. You manage to make your manuscript far better than it was. Meanwhile, that clever brain of yours has dared to learn even more. While your book may reflect your best ability from two months ago, it again feels mediocre compared to what your brain actually thinks it can do. So, you revise again, but you’re starting to sense a pattern. If you’re like me, you might even sketch out a graph, and sure enough, it doesn’t seem like the improvement rate of the manuscript will EVER catch up to that brilliant bowl of noodles balanced on the tip of your spine.

While I believe that revision is immensely powerful*, I also believe that some unfixable problems can be introduced to your book early on. By unfixable, I don’t actually mean unfixable, but perhaps the fixing of the problem would make the book so unrecognizable that it is basically a different book. This sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, you came up with the idea back when your brain was just a fledgling, and now your advanced brain is having to deal with the mess. Ever try to fix a cake that a five-year-old started to make?

At some point, you have fixed your book A LOT, but it’s probably not as good as your brain could make it if it could start from scratch. This point probably coincides with the time when you are making changes in your manuscript and then changing it right back again. You know your book could be better, but at the same time, you can’t fix it without making it into a different book. I think that’s when you stop. Your project reflects who you were, and your next book will reflect who you are.

If you want actual numbers, you may have to start licking the Tootsie Pop, because everyone works differently. I think Scott was on draft 4 or 5 when he landed his agent. Michelle caught an agent’s attention in a contest after just a few months of working on her novel. As for me, my book is over five years old and is on draft 43. But, what I call a draft, Scott might call a sneeze. And, while Michelle’s current book is coming into focus in less than a year, her first book is at least a few years older than mine.

*Scott and Michelle both have great strategies for doing so—myself, I prefer the cat-in-a-rain-barrell approach.


  1. I think your post is exactly right in general about outgrowing novel(s)--and pretty much describes my personal experience too. Though I also think brains almost always think they can do more than writing fingers actually can; "stuff" gets thermodynamically irreversibly lost during that brain-to-finger translation. Or maybe writing (speaking, painting, etc.) will seem better inside brains because humans ultimately can't express every little thing they can mentally see. Maybe they're not meant to express everything. Maybe some things are better left unexpressed; their beauty might be destroyed otherwise.

    I do like my earlier books for the most part; still, if I started writing the same stories today, I'd do them differently. I no longer go back into them to revise--like when I published new editions recently, years after their first publications, I left the novels mostly as they had been.

  2. For me, I knew I was done when I knew there was nothing more I could do to change it or make it better. That was done. I submitted and had moderate success at the query stage--but ultimately no offer.

    I think I've outgrown that novel, though (great wya to put it, btw), and hopefully, this new one I am working on will be finished before I outgrow it.

  3. David, right on! This is exactly the problem that I have been unable to express.

    I always struggle with conveying what I see and hear in my mind into written form, a form that works, and I am constantly learning, but I seem to be lagging.

    It's a struggle for me especially because I'm 17 years old, and I can envision experiences as I see them from around me or from the movies, but my odd progress in learning how to write has kind of left things awkwardly awry.

    Thanks for the great insight!

  4. That Litgirl asks a lot of questions! Sheesh! I have many more where those came from too.

    I was happy to read this post because it goes to show how similar our experiences are as we grow into the best writers that we can be. I have learned SO much since I started blogging and I am so thankful to all of you! :-)

  5. I second the fact that LitGirl asks a lot of questions. Of course, she also post fabulous pictures of margarita drinking gladiators . . .

    I was done when I was done, when on a read through I found very little to change. I also set a goal of four revisions. Yes, that might seem too small a number, but I know how I am, and knew that if I set an unlimited number of revisions I would never submit the MS.

    This works for me, but probably not everybody. Still, when the revision process becomes routine, and the red pen is out just because it feels comfortable in your hand, I think it is time to push the baby out of the nest and hope it flies.

    Great post, Davin!


  6. I love the analogy comparing early drafts to a 5 year old making a cake. That is so apt. Sometimes it is much easier to just chuck what the mess and start over. That's what I've done. It makes a lot more sense this time through.

  7. Reason Reanimator, you might be right in that brains almost always think they can do more than writing fingers actually can.

    Beth, good luck with your newest work. I think it can be very refreshing to call an old project done. Then, you can use your energy for bigger and better things.

    Weronika, I think it depends on how you think as well. I think some people are better at thinking with words (even in their heads) than others are.

    We love your questions, Traci! We hope you'll ask as many of them as you like!

    Scott, You obviously work in a different way than I do. I really admire writers who can plan ahead. It seems so efficient. For me, in my writing and in my life in general, I always feel like I'm groping in the dark.

  8. Lois, I agree with you on that. Sometimes it is worth chucking the whole thing. Other times, you can gain a lot of insight by pushing through, even if the finished project isn't a masterpiece, you can learn a lot simply by getting to the end. It's hard to know when to make that choice though! The book I'm going to be submitting soon is my third attempt at a novel. For the first one, I had no intention of finishing it. I just wanted to see if I could write something long. For the second one, I thought I would finish it, but after a couple of drafts I felt like it wasn't what I actually wanted to say. This third one feels more satisfying to work on, and my fourth one feels even more satisfying. I'm glad I stayed with #3, even though #4 is better, in my opinion.

  9. Traci: Please ask away! We're not sure what to do to get more people to ask questions... it sure makes choosing a topic for posts easier, LOL.

    Davin: This is an excellent post. We all write differently, and eat a sucker differently, too. Some people just pop it in their mouths and chew. I don't think we'd get far by doing that with our writing...

    Seriously, though, I do rely on the layers method. When I've reached about draft 5 or 6 with my current novel, I'll consider querying it. I might be like you, though, in that I'll have to reach draft #43 before the work really is close. Then again, I will have long outgrown it. No use trying to fit into something that just doesn't fit anymore. The way you state that our older work represents what we were, and our current work represents who we are, is brilliant. Thinking of it that way definitely helps me put things into perspective. Thank you!

  10. Davin,

    First, I want to say that this was an insightful and valuable post that gets at a practical problem. Namely, we improve as writers and can outgrow our own work. The image of fixing a cake that a five year old made is funny and apt.

    Now, let's consider the question of when to talk with an agent about your story. The fact is that if you go to a conference you will have an opportunity to talk with an agent. And, if the agent likes what you have to say, they will request a partial or a full. I just posted on this over at Adventures in Fiction. The problem I have faced is that I am still discovering things about the world of my story, and every time I have someone read the story they give me new insights and I see how things can be improved. (That makes me want to hold onto the story and do more work on it.)

    I am coming to realize that the right time to submit is when an agent requests the partial or full.

    What I am hearing you say, correct me if I am wrong, is that you are ready to submit your work because you have out-grown your novel. Sounds to me like you are ready to roll the dice and see what happens. If you score you score, if you don't you don't. Perhaps you are looking forward to the next project?

    I have a feeling that I will re-read your post because it says alot about us as writers and how we grow.

  11. Oh yeah...I will be asking as many questions as I can.

    Scott - don't make me post a pic your main character's girlfriend! LOL

  12. Dave, thanks for chiming in. You're right about my feelings right now. I'm close to ready to send my book out and see if anything happens. I'm ready to stop working on it until someone gives me new ideas about it because I think I've exhausted my own ideas. Your post was very interesting. I think I also fall into the camp that would strike while the iron is hot once I got a partial or a full request. In my first round of querying, I was asked for one partial, and I think I sent it off within two days of the request. Of course, I thought I was done at the time.

    But, if I consider what you say about still discovering new things...that, to me, is a sign to keep working on it. That comes down to what I would actually like published at the end of the day. What would I want to have on the bookshelves? Getting an agent is perhaps the hardest step to publishing (after writing the book), but it's not the most important. Would you be happy if your book was published in its current state? If not, maybe you should hold onto it, even if it risks losing an agent, which it probably wouldn't.

  13. ARGH, Davin, I am in revisions right now and I am wondering, how will I know? I think I'll just know. Somehow, I'll know it's finished. UGH, It's hard, isn't it? :)

  14. Davin, thanks for the comments. I will use some of them in next Sunday's follow up post on the topic, if you don't mind.

    I look forward to seeing what choices you make in the near future.

  15. "Ever try to fix a cake that a five-year-old started to make?"

    My first novel. Ha ha.

  16. I apologize for the mispelling of the name, Davin!

    And thanks for stopping by the novel-in-progress.

  17. Terrific post! Makes me glad I write 400 word picture books :)


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