Part One: Press Pause

Literary agents are rarer than pink flamingos

So, your book’s finished. Time to find an agent, right? Wrong. 

How finished is your book? Is it in a first draft state? What I mean by that is did you just finish the very first draft of it from opening scene to concluding scene? 

Okay, I hate to break it to you, but that draft can’t leave the house. It’s neither finished nor, ready for the intense gaze of an agent you are trying to impress enough to request your entire manuscript. You are now on what a lot of writers call Draft Zero. That means it’s time to put it in a drawer and spend a couple of months catching up on the relationships, the admin and everything else you’ve been neglecting for the past year or several while you focused on the novel. 

Whoever said all work and no play makes Jack a dull dull boy obviously wasn’t an editor

Maybe start thinking about your next idea, it’s never too early to start Book 2. After all, if an agent likes your submission and is considering representing you they are going to ask you what else you’ve got on the go. You better have something – even if it’s just a well-honed one page synopsis, otherwise the agent will worry (often rightly) that you will Write Something Very Different, maybe shock, horror something in a completely different genre than Book 1. Two Very Different Books from the same writer might mean a two book deal with one publisher is off the table at the outset which can, depending on your personal circumstances and/or career aims, be a major mistake. See my previous blog for the similar but different refrain of many a publisher pondering their next acquisition. They don’t want to waste their marketing efforts selling Book 1 as crime and you as a crime writer when your next book is maybe crime, maybe not. Series are good. One off psychological thrillers are good. But Book 1 as a cozy crime series and book 2 as a psych thriller is not good. Be consistent. Once you get your success you can switch sub-genres or even genres and perhaps write two different things under different pen names, or with different publishers. But, right now, when you are in a battle to emerge from the slush pile, you need to show consistency in approach.

Fast forward from Draft Zero sixty days: take your manuscript out of the drawer and re-read it in its entirety. Ideally, in the shortest time possible, so that you can experience it as you probably want the reader to.  Really immerse yourself in it. If you spot typos, just ride on by. You’re not working on those right now. This is the developmental edit. It’s a total waste of time to correct typos on pages that might get completely cut.

Ask yourself: What big things are working? What things aren’t? 

Now that you’ve had time away from the intensity of writing Draft Zero you will be able to see so much clearer: is that a believable plot/sub-plot. Does it make sense? Are you hitting all the points you know your readers will want? In terms of consistency in the narrative: it’s supposed to be Halloween in Alaska so why is everyone walking around in shorts and referencing the heat. How about those secondary characters are they really living lives of their own or are they just there twiddling their thumbs without ever forming characters of their own? 

All the choices are yours. For now.

You need to be absolutely ruthless on your writing if you are going to make the work stronger. If you are unsure how to do this take an editing course, read a book on developmental/structural editing, join as many writers groups online as you can and see if you can find a good but reasonably priced professional editor who specialises in your genre/sub-genre to assist you with this very important edit stage. Before you do hire someone check out what books they’ve edited. Published books, that is. Even on Kindle. That way you can use Amazon’s search engine to read the first 10% of them for free. If you like what you read and you feel that you would buy that book then hire the editor. Some editors will, for a small fee, show you how they would edit your first few chapters and give feedback to you. This can save you a lot of tears and cash. If you cannot take constructive and/or professional criticism of your paper baby then you are going to waste a lot of time sobbing in your garret. Professional writers have their full, in contract, manuscripts rejected all the time. Sometimes even endless rewrites don’t make the editors happy and the contracted writer has to write an entire new novel. Writing is rewriting. Nothing is truer in this game. 

You just have to trust your editor and hopefully you have found one you’re happy to work with on Draft Zero. Nb if you feel very very strongly that a note is somehow wrong then discuss it with them and then chose to accept that one or ignore it, but don’t ignore too many of them, you hired the editor for a reason remember. They have a professional detachment from your novel which brings clarity and focus to the narrative. Frankly, you do not. 

Once you have rewritten your novel, a process which can take days or years depending on the volume of notes and your available time to work on it, then the book goes to the copy editor. Yes, even though you are only going to send the first three chapters to the agents of your choice you are going to get it all copy-edited now. Once you get the copy-edits back this might again take days or weeks of your time to wade through all your crimes against grammar and offences against the English language and press accept on the copy editor’s changes. It’s really important to have the book copy-edited because you hope, surely, that the agent is going to love it so much that once they have read it, they are instantly going to press the reply button and ask you to send the full manuscript asap. An agent is not going to be very impressed if the submitted excerpt is riddled with errors. So, spend the time and resources to ensure you give yourself the very best chance of success.

Don’t wait for the phone to ring, get cracking on the next task in the Find an Agent Challenge

Next week in Part Two: How to find the agent for you.