Knowing When Your MS is Ready to Query by Literary Agent Lara Perkins

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?

The Checklist

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.

50 thoughts on “Knowing When Your MS is Ready to Query by Literary Agent Lara Perkins”

  1. Wondering if my manuscript is ready will always plague me, but I really, really like the checklist offered in number six. And I especially enjoyed seeing what you do NOT care about when considering new work. This was all so helpful! Thank you!

  2. This is such great advice to wake up to in the morning! I love how you break it all down and force us to ask ourselves these questions. It’s so easy to start thinking that something is ready to send when it really isn’t.

  3. Great post! A lot of truth in here.

    From the writer’s side of things, I’m one of I’m sure MANY who have gone through all those steps above, gotten their manuscript to the point where their critiquers have nothing else to nitpick, and yet still feel uncertain if their work is up to par and ready to go. Here’s a secret I learned: Odds are, it’s not ready. But you have to start querying anyway. The only way you’ll learn what needs to be fixed (after you’ve of course, spent months or years revising with a critique group) is to throw yourself out there and see what happens.

    So my personal advice: do everything you can to prepare, but at some point you just have to go for it. Take the plunge. Once you belly-flop in the water a few times, you’ll be able to revise your technique enough to actually start performing some decent dives, so to speak. It’s rare for any author to write the perfect query + 10 pages on their first round of querying attempts, even if they’ve done all the steps they’re “supposed” to do. Sometimes you just have to learn from experience. A painful as they are, rejections have taught me so much. My manuscript wouldn’t be what it is today if I hadn’t gotten rejections.

    I queried before I was ready, but I never would’ve been ready if I hadn’t started querying.

    (Full disclosure: I don’t have an agent yet. I’m still querying! So take my advice with a grain of salt, and best of luck to everyone else who’s stuck in the query phase!)

  4. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for the great advice! Knowing when to stop tweaking my stories and declare them ready to be sent out into the world is something that I struggle with. I will definitely be keeping your tips in mind as I finish my latest round of revisions on my MG, The Misadventures of Ned.

  5. I loved your signs of when your ms is NOT ready. LOL I believe I had those problems when I queried an old ms some time ago.

    Your suggestions are very helpful. Thank you for contributing your time and effort to us querying writers!

  6. Thank you so much for this! Knowing when it’s ready seems to be one thing that confuses a lot of new authors. This explains it so much better to me! Thank you very much!

  7. Excellent information. I appreciated seeing what you are about vs. what you don’t. While eradicating typos and clunky sentences is important, it’s good to know what compels you to read on and consider representing.

  8. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this. Often people in a profession will toss out phrases that seem obvious to them, but not to others. You’ve made me feel more comfortable about knowing when my own work is ready.

    One thing you said struck me though. When I get feedback from agents (rare, brief, and precious feedback) I usually go back and pick at my novel. Yes, it’s “finished,” but I can’t help picking at it when someone offeres a suggestion. Then when I think I’ve got it ready again, I send more queries. And again, it’s “finished.” You said we shouldn’t send it out if we’re still making changes.

    I suspect revising after professional feedback is an exception to this. Agreed?

  9. Lara, thank you so much for your post. Although I am not yet at that point with any of my manuscripts, I appreciate that your article is truthful and informative. Keeping it bookmarked!!!

  10. Lara, thank you for your insight. I love lists, though I don’t follow them when they’re out of sight. When my office is done, both the checklist and big picture list are both going in frames so they’re out, in plain sight and I don’t make rookie mistakes in the future!

  11. Thanks for the advice and the checklist is helpful. I agree with some of the posts. The ms gets finished, the author queries, the author waits, the author revises. The cycle repeats. Another great agent posted here yesterday something about how she knows a ms is ready when she has nothing left to suggest. Guess it’s time to take another look at our ms and see if I can’t find a fresh set of eyes to read it for us. Repeat cycle. Hopefully people run out of suggestions soon, then we’ll know the ms is ready. We’ll make sure that our readers have your checklist in hand too, maybe that’ll speed up the process. Thanks for your time.

  12. Thanks for the info Lara. I think it never hurts to get reminders because, lets face it, even the best and most experienced authors can forget the basics from time to time. I like the ABC’s of how you laid things out, because, I am NOT an long time experienced author and need certain things clarified. Hope things are going well for you there at Andrea Brown, and once again, I appreciate the clear information!

  13. Thank you for the checklists and advice. I, too, need a fresh set of eyes. I have revised after critiques at conferences, then resubmitted and then get advised to change it back the way it was!

  14. Thank you for taking the time to share this information. I know authors have a tendency to query too soon, and this let’s us know why rejections occur.

  15. Thank you, Lara. This is a wonderful resource, which I’ll refer back to many times, I’m sure. I especially appreciate your take on the word “hook” and discussion of what you look for in new work. Cheers!

  16. Thanks for the great advice Lara. You’re right, it’s so hard to articulate that hook sometimes that makes your story unique. It was interesting to read what you look at in reading a manuscript. Great advice to be sure the reader needs to read past page 50.

  17. Good stuff. I know I can edit forever always worrying it’s not polished enough. Thanks for giving a concrete and rational checklist.
    Holly

  18. This is great, thank you!
    I’m a PB writer and have 7 manuscripts that I’m focusing on right now, rotating back and forth with a fine tooth comb, looking at word choice, EVERYTHING, getting ready to submit.
    In the future I suspect a longer work will be ready to send out too, and some of these questions will be especially pertinent.

  19. Great post! It’s probably the main question we writers have- is it ready? I’ve found that once we’ve done all these steps, there’s a time to just let it go. That’s hard sometimes but necessary.

  20. Thank you for this checklist. It’s always hard to relinquish your baby but at some point you just have to trust your gut and send it out into the world.

  21. Thank you all for reading and for the great feedback! It’s wonderful to hear a bit about some of your own experiences with querying. And those of you getting ready to query, I wish you all the best!

    @Steve: Most definitely agreed! And for that reason, I recommend going out to small groups of agents on each round of submission so that if you do get feedback, you can revise and then send out your revised to the next group. What you’d hope to avoid is sending multiple revisions to the same agents while they’re still considering, since it does create the impression that you jumped the gun on the whole “ready” question.

    @Katie Slivensky: Excellent point, and a great (accurate) way to think about rejections. Many writers submit too early, but some writers hesitate to ever take the plunge, and that’s also a shame.

    Sending the very best of publishing luck to you all!

  22. This is such a helpful checklist. A while back I thought I was ready, but something kept holding back. I worried that I was just a big ol’ chicken. But then I found a new critique partner who helped me identify what my gut subconsciously knew, but that I was too close to see. Working on fixing things now and hope to be ready to take the plunge soon.

  23. Thank you for your post, Ms. Perkins. It was very informative; especially #6. I’m going to copy and paste that section into my “Editing and Revision” document to keep in mind next time I edit a MS!

  24. Great post – Great questionnaire. I have one question that has been troubling me (really two questions): In presenting a proposed manuscript, how critical is the misplacement of commas in an agent’s decision? Does it outweigh the overall quality of the book itself?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>