How do you know when it’s ready?
You’ve probably already heard (many times) that you should not query before your work is ready. It’s great advice and common sense. But when you’re alone at your computer, with a well-researched list of agents by your side, you might find yourself agonizing over what exactly is meant by “ready.” It’s such a vague word, darnit! Is your work-in-progress truly “ready”? You’re not sure. You stare at it some more.
An agent-ready manuscript does not have to be as polished as a publication-ready manuscript, but 95% of the manuscripts submitted to agents are not yet agent-ready. So here is a practical checklist that I hope will help you answer the age-old question: Is my manuscript ready for an agent’s eyes?
1. Is my manuscript finished?
Please don’t query without a finished manuscript. If for some compelling reason you must, please, please mention upfront that you only have a partial. If you’re a published author looking for new representation, then querying with a partial may make sense. Otherwise, it is the quickest way to turn your best-case scenario into a worst-case scenario–when every agent requests your full manuscript and you have to tell them it isn’t ready yet, and would they mind waiting six months? Some might oblige, but you’ve derailed the excitement created by your spectacular query and presented yourself in a less than professional light.
2. No, really, is my manuscript finished?
“Finished” means that you’ve completed your first draft, spent some time away from it, gone back and revised it to the best of your ability, probably multiple times. It means that you will not keep editing it (and sending revised versions to agents every few days) once you send it out. It means that an agent will not be the first person other than you to read it. Speaking of which…
3. Have I shown my manuscript to at least 3 people and seriously considered their feedback?
I highly, highly, highly recommend joining a critique group if you haven’t already. I could write a full post just on this, but a critique group you trust and respect is the best way to improve your writing and learn what you need to know to be successful in this business. Critique group or no, get others’ honest opinions on your work and consider their feedback carefully. You don’t need to take all suggestions, but try to keep an open mind and ask yourself if you have a good reason before you dismiss a concern.
4. Does my story have a hook? Will it make an agent sit up and take notice?
I’m using “hook” very loosely here to mean anything that will make an agent sit up and take notice (in a good way). This is by far the hardest question on the checklist to answer honestly about your own work. The easiest way to approach it is to think about how agents spot promising material. Every agent is different, so I can only truly speak for myself, but I think it’s safe to say that many agents look for similar big-picture strengths.
What I look for in new work:
- Unique and compelling world-building
(Complexity, originality, a sense of fun and wonder. An agent can help an author hone the details of the story’s world, but only the author can invent the world.)
- Great voice
(Confident, clean writing, with personality and a unique perspective. Once again, an agent cannot really help an author find her own voice, just help refine what’s already there.)
- A page-turning pace
(An engaging plot and tight pacing—high stakes, believable obstacles, unexpected but earned twists and turns. If I reach page 50 and I don’t need to keep reading, it’s usually a “no” for me.)
- A new twist
(Where/how the book will fit in the market; has it been done before, and is this different enough from what’s already out there? Does it feel fresh?)
What I do not care about when considering new work:
- Some room to go deeper with a few characters
- Minor inconsistencies in the world
- A few unpolished sentences
- Isolated pacing issues
- Spelling errors unless they are everywhere
Your manuscript does not have to be 100% perfect at this stage, but it does need to be a manuscript that an agent-reader will not be able to put down (because of the characters, story, and pacing). In other words, your manuscript needs to work on a high level. So…you can see what’s coming…
5. Does my manuscript work on a high level?
As I mentioned above, an agent-ready manuscript is not the same as a publication-ready manuscript because an agent is looking for something to sell, not something to publish. Also, many agents (myself included) work editorially with their clients.
Unfortunately, that does not mean the bar is any lower at this stage. The bar is extremely high, as you can probably guess from #4 above. Most agents turn down 99% of the work they see.
An agent-ready manuscript does not have to be perfect, but the story, the voice, and the characters need to be very strong and compelling. So what I mean by “working on a high level” is that all of the important, big-picture elements are there and are developed, unique, and gripping. Which brings us to the next question…
6. Have I asked myself the following big-picture questions about my manuscript—and revised if the answer is no?
- Does my story have a clear beginning, middle, and end?
- Do my characters have interesting and relatable goals in which a reader can invest?
- Are the stakes high?
- Are my characters unique and differentiated from one another—in the way they speak, in the way they act, in the choices they make, in their goals/hopes/dreams?
- Do my characters change throughout the story? Do they have character arcs, with definite beginnings, middles, and endings?
- Are the obstacles that keep my characters from achieving their goals believable and interesting?
- Are all the scenes and characters necessary to the story?
- Is the action moving at a page-turning pace?
- Do my chapter endings and beginnings fit together in a way that propels the reader into the next part of the story?
- Am I the only person who can tell this story and is that reflected in the voice?
- Is the voice consistent and well-matched for this story?
- Is my story different from what’s out there? (Hopefully, this is the easiest question to answer because you’ve been reading constantly in your genre and age group…right?)
7. If in doubt, repeat steps 3-6 until the answer to step 2 is yes.
The world would be an easier place if “ready” meant that you typed “The End” on the last page of your work-in-progress. But who wants easy? Interesting characters push themselves to the next level again and again, and interesting writers do too. Work hard, be interesting, and agents will rejoice when they see your work in the query box.
Thanks for reading!
Lara Perkins is an Assistant Agent and Digital Manager at Andrea Brown Literary. Lara jointly represents select clients together with Senior Agent Laura Rennert, with a focus on picture book, middle grade, and young adult children’s fiction. Lara has a B.A. in English and Fine Arts from Amherst College and an M.A. in English Literature from Columbia University. She has been on faculty at various California writers’ conferences, including Book Passage and the Big Sur Writers’ Conference.