I’ve recently been talking a lot about my two WIPs—a novella called “The Rose and Honey Soul,” which is nearly complete, and a novel called The Thousand Shattered Gods. The process for writing both of these has been fraught with all the perils that come with working on long-form projects as an unsigned/unpublished writer—including the ever-wavering certainty that you’re balancing on the knife’s edge of brilliance and existential irrelevance. Fun times.
Of course, there’s all the great stuff about writing, too: excitement, possibility, craft, research, discovering your world and characters are so much more than you ever expected or hoped they would be. It’s heady, and I’m constantly reminded why I pursue my writing goals.
Over the years, I’ve written a lot of short fiction, and sold/published a fair bit of it. You can find those stories here. I’ve learned a lot, and though I’m still on a neverending journey of improving my craft and becoming a better storyteller, I feel like I have a good handle on the business side of short fiction. I know when I’ve reached the point where a short story is as good as it’s going to get—when it’ll either sell or it won’t, and further tinkering won’t change that. For me, this is roughly the fourth draft (first draft is the bones of the story, drafts two and three focus on structural/thematic/character issues, draft four focuses on cleaning up language, tightening, copyedit, etc.) I know what to do with my short stories once they’re ready. (Hint: The Submission Grinder is an invaluable tool.) I know how to send a short story out into the world, whether that’s through a publication that’s purchased the rights, or by self-publishing.
But, what I don’t know is what the hell to do with longer pieces that don’t fit into that short fiction model. Novellas are weird for a lot of reasons that I won’t really touch on here (there are few markets for them, they straddle a line between short fiction and novels when it comes to marketing them, they are far more expensive to self-publish, etc.). Rather, I’d like to talk about novels, and share what I’ve learned about the steps between finishing your first draft and, *gulp*, sending it out to agents and editors. (This is called querying.)
“But, Aidan, you just said you don’t know anything about querying novels!”
A lot of other people do, and many of them were kind enough to impart their wisdom upon me when I brought this topic up on Twitter.
What are editors and agents looking for?
I started by trying to untangle editor/agent expectations for manuscripts they’ve received in their slush pile. Short fiction is pretty clear on this: most short fiction editors receive so many submissions that they’re at liberty to pluck the best-of-the-best from the pile and move on from there. From what I can tell (and from my experience) there’s very little in the way of short fiction editors nurturing ideas and working with authors through multiple revisions until a story is just right. (All of my experiences have included only light content edits and regular copyedits.) Sometimes you’ll get a Revise & Resubmit request, where an editor sees something they like, but wants to see if a twist on the story will work from them. Some editors, like Beneath Ceaseless Skies‘s Scott H. Andrews, will work with the author, but they’re fewer and farther between. For the most part, it seems like they’re looking for cut and polished diamonds. So, that means writers (and their team of beta readers) need to put in the work ensuring that the story is damn near ready to publish as-is before the story goes out on submission. Novels are a bit different, though not in a way that’s easy to wrap up with a single answer and a bow on top.
The consensus is that there is no consensus.
Writers Kameron Hurley and Max Gladstone were both dubious about the idea that editors bought ideas, rather than finished novels. “I see it happening a bit,” said Gladstone. “Mostly if the editor buys a novel that is stellar, but needs a bit of adjustment to get published the way the editor wants to publish it.
“‘Looks like you’ve got talent, kid! Let’s go through eight drafts until we have something good!’ doesn’t seem to happen any more, if it ever did.”
(I’m fully willing to admit that this might have been pie-eyed naïvety and optimism on my part.)
Hurley, however, mentioned that while this might be true of editors, it varied among agents. Some agents are a lot more flexible and willing (or perhaps even eager) to work with writers based on their potential (and that of their manuscript.) Amanda Rutter, associate agent with Red Sofa Literary and freelance editor, suggested the same. “Research the agents you’re planning to submit to – some are more editorially hands on than others. The former will work with an unfinished gem, the latter might want more polishing, something they can send out virtually untouched.” Lisa Rodgers of JABberwocky Literary Agency Inc. agreed with Rutter.
Dara Kaye of Ross Yoon Agency loves to help her clients shape their work before it ever reaches an editor’s desk—but she needs to see that the author has the vision and talent to follow through with their promise. She went on to explain that as an agent, she expects to edit every book she represents, but she wants a manuscript that shows to her that “the [potential] best possible version of the book is a) outstanding and b) within an author’s reach.”
Is it ready now?
So, how do you know when to stop writing and when to stop querying? Where’s the point on that knife’s edge between “needs work” and “now you’re wasting your time?”
“I think one of the hardest skills to learn is figuring out when you’re polishing, and when you’re just dulling your edges,” said Marshall Ryan Maresca, author of The Way of the Shield. “I’m of the school of thought that when you have something that’s got clean prose, clear voice and a sound structure, start sending it out.”
A pretty clear goal, I said. “I’d say I generally know when I’m at that point with a short story. It’s the point where it’ll either sell or it won’t, and the details won’t change that.”
“It’s fundamentally the same with a novel,” Maresca replied. “Though the harder pill to swallow there is accepting the ‘or it won’t’ part of it, since so much more time and energy have been invested in it.”
But, we’re all writers. We know this. At this point in my career, I’ve accepted the idea that a lot of hard work goes into creating something that may or may not ever see the light of day. But, it’s taken me a long time to get there. I wrote a novel several years ago, and trunked it. It was okay, but not good enough. Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to attempt another novel is because I was uncomfortable with pouring so many hours into a project that nobody outside of my family would ever read. I’m there now, though. I’m ready.
So, what do you do once you have a completed manuscript? Whether you’re pitching to an editor or an agent, and regardless of whether they are willing to work with their clients’ rough gems, you can’t just send out your first draft manuscript. You’ve got to get it into tip-top shape first.
Okay. NOW it’s done! What do I do next?
Listen & revise
Hal Duncan and Ruth Booth are both major believers in the efficacy and importance of writers groups. Get that book into the hands of readers who care about writing and see what they have to say. I have a core group of beta readers that I’ve worked with over the years. They are invaluable to me. They help me see the flaws that are invisible to my biased writer’s eyes, and help me better understand the story I’m trying to tell. If you can find other readers or writer with the same level of dedication and compassion, you’ll be far ahead of the field.
(One note about beta readers: not all are created equal. Try to find beta readers who care about your story, and don’t simply provide feedback that tries to turn your work into theirs. It’s okay to reject feedback if you feel like it’s not the right thing for your story. My rule of thumb is generally that I’ll ignore an issue that I don’t agree with if one reader brings it up, but once two or more mention the same problem, I’ll evaluate and fix even if I don’t necessarily agree. Of course, even this isn’t a hard and fast rule.)
I spoke about my general process for revising short fiction above, but I’ll reiterate:
- First draft: Bones of the story with little, half-formed dangly bits of muscle and flesh (these are the characters, worldbuilding, action, plot beats, etc.)
- Second & third draft: Based on beta reader feedback, I’ll be revising to fix plot/pacing issues, smooth out voice, theme, and worldbuilding. I like to vary beta readers between revisions so that the third draft has some returning beta readers and some fresh eyes. This is like the bulking up phase at the gym.
- Fourth draft: This is where I’m going through and trying to clean up and tighten everything I can. Slim down prose, clean up language, trim word count. It’s like the cutting phase at the gym.
I’ll likely apply a similar process to my novella and novel. It’s simple, straight forward, and something I’m already familiar with. Both Aliette de Bodard and Kate Heartfield agreed that their process for revising novels varied from short fiction only in scale.
Make sure your manuscript is clean
You don’t need to hire a copyeditor, but once you’re certain your manuscript is ready-to-go, give it another once-over looking for typos, misspellings, formatting errors, etc. Doing so will raise your manuscript’s level of professionalism, and show the agent/editor that you have an eye for detail and are willing to work hard to represent your work in the best possible way.
Research agents and editors
Make sure they’re open to submissions. Check that they accept (and are currently looking for) your novel’s genre (science fiction, fantasy, horror, post-apocalyptic, etc.) and category (adult, YA, crossover, etc.). Look at their list of clients—know who you’re approaching, and understand how best to appeal to them.
Write a good query letter
Listen, this is a whole blog post all on its own, and I don’t have the answers. Luckily, people like Chuck Wendig already have us covered.
Don’t rely on a single agent or editor. Even if they love your work, there might not be a fit for a whole slew of other reasons. Finding the right agent is a lot more important than finding an agent.
Goodbye, little bird
In the end, there are no right answers here. Every writer, agent, editor, and manuscript will have a slightly different story. The only constant in all of this is that everybody involved is looking for the best book possible and, as a writer, your best opportunity here is to work hard on your book, finish your work, and believe in yourself as you begin the processing of shopping your work to an agent or editor.