December 12, 2011

The Finishing Touch

The other day Londongirl posted a question on You Haven't Got an Appointment! that concerns writing, editing, and publishing, then expanded on that in an email. She wrote

Can you send queries to publishing houses after you've completed a manuscript? Or should you send them when you are still working on the manuscript?

For first time authors, it's a bad idea to submit an unfinished novel. The agent or publisher who will be looking at your query may be fascinated by the story concept that you're laying out, but once they get down to "SUCH AND SUCH is an uncompleted historical fiction; its estimated size at completion is 100,000 words," they are very likely to balk. And why not? After all, they're going to be investing in you and your work; it's only reasonable that they should want to know that you have the dedication to stick with a story to the end.

While you're writing your story, focus on writing it. This is not to say that if you come across an agency that seems like a fit you shouldn't take note of it, but don't go out of your way to contact agents and editors while you're still in the business of getting your words onto paper. You've got enough to do just shaping your story; don't worry about getting it "out there" to professionals. Allow yourself to relax and enjoy writing for itself, rather than attempting to do everything at once.

How do you know when your manuscript is ready to be shipped off to a potential publisher?

This is a trickier question to answer, because there are so many components that affect a manuscript's readiness. A book is never really finished until it's printed and out in stores; my novel Wordcrafter is in the querying stage, but I still find little things to change. You're not going to reach a stage in the writing of one book where you finally feel that you have arrived, that the story is perfect, that you have written everything you wanted to say and said it in the exact manner you wanted. Even after a book is published, chances are you'll see things that you wish you could edit. Aim for perfection, by all means, but don't think that you can't start querying until you've attained that goal...because if you do, you'll never query at all. At the same time, however, Londongirl is right: there is a stage where the story is polished enough to be submitted to the eyes of agents and publishers. So how do you know you've reached it?

To approach first from the negative side, there is a way to know that the manuscript is not ready to be submitted. It won't be ready the minute you finish your first draft, so it would be very unwise to start sending out queries the day after you type "the end." (You really, really don't want agents and editors to see the rubbish of that first draft.) Give the story space and don't be impatient. Allot yourself plenty of time for editing and editing again. If you have seen the movie "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" you might remember the scene in which Captain Gregg is dictating to Lucy and she corrects his grammar.

Captain Gregg: "To or from, who cares? This isn't a blasted literary epic. It's the unvarnished story of a seaman's life."

Lucy: "It certainly is unvarnished."

Well, editing is the varnish, and even stories of seamen's lives need it (and yes, I am eying The White Sail's Shaking). Don't pass over this in your writing. But, as with most things, it is possible to carry the good principle of editing too far. A writer can become paralyzed with fear at the thought of showing anyone the novel, and so may continue to edit...and edit...and edit...and edit...until the story is worn out and the writer is worn out and it's ten years later and goodness, what happened? There comes a point in time when enough is enough, and you've got to send the baby off. The difficulty is knowing when that point comes.

A good way of telling if you're ready to submit is in the advice of other people. This can be hard if you don't know many people who are supportive of your writing, but chances are there is at least one person whose opinion you trust. Critiquers don't need to be writers themselves; they only need to be readers who know what constitutes good literature and what doesn't. Give them the story and let them critique it for you, and consider what they say. Balance it with your own feelings, but remember that they haven't spent months on the story and aren't worn out and nervous about the whole thing - and consequently, that their minds are clearer than yours.

There is no cut-and-dry answer. It would be nice to say that a story will be ready on the third edit, but the fact of the matter is that some novels will be and some novels won't. My advice is to take the writing process slowly and to enjoy it; write and then edit, then show it to someone and edit again, and then start to think about agents and publishers. At some point in time you will have to venture out and entrust your story to Professionals, but although it is nerve-wracking, don't work yourself into a sweat over it. Writing is a wonderful thing to be able to do, and worrying over every step of the way will only ruin your enjoyment of it.


  1. Thank you so much for answering my questions!! Your advice is much appreciated and is very helpful!! I know of two people who I trust with my document and that is you and Katie. Thanks again for reading through my chapters. Your input is much appreciated.

  2. This is the one aspect of writing a story I have thought about the least, which seems highly appropriate at this point in my life for... many reasons. Nevertheless, I appreciate your insight and experience, having none of my own.

    (And your posts are always so pretty!)

  3. Londongirl - Glad I could help! And it's a pleasure to be able to read your story, despite how long it sometimes takes me.

    Anna - I never think "Michelangelo" when I see that image; my mind goes directly to Ben-Hur. Anyhow, I actually find this the hardest part of the "process" to write about, because it often seems soulless. It's hard to breathe the spirit of your story into query letters, and I know that for myself it sometimes feels like I'm selling a living, breathing baby. I do hope that some time down the road your stories will be in print - there need to be more books like yours - but for now you get the joy of just scribbling, so why worry your head about it? That's what I think, at least.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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