It makes sense that any story which compels us to lose sleep, distracts us during conversations with our families, and leaves us wondering when we last ate a meal would be something we're eager to talk about. How are you doing, Jane? Great! I'm up to thirty-two thousand words, and the love interest just said something that made my protagonist thinks he dislikes her brownies! Except he really loves them and now he's going to wonder why she's stopped making them. Oh, and I thought of the perfect word to describe the Brooklyn Bridge in daylight.
(You've done it too. Don't look so innocent.)
But it's not enough to tell your story to the nice lady on the bus who turned down her hearing aid and got off three stops early. You know everyone will love your story. It needs to be published. You're only halfway through the first draft and you already envision the cover. You know which page of the book review section it's going to be on and you're thinking of your Amazon keywords and coming up with interview answers for when you're on NPR. The only things left to do are find an agent and a publisher.
You want to query.
You aren't even done yet. But you want to query. Because it's so good.
All the agents say only query a finished novel. But you've heard they take a while to respond. Surely you'll be done by then. What's the harm?
Well, don't. Disconnect your internet connection if you have to, but don't.
When you query too soon, you lose an opportunity. Every agent who looks at your manuscript in an unready condition is one agent who will not be seeing it six months later when it's "really ready." And you can't requery with, "You know, I actually edited it this time, so I was wondering--"
You lose an opportunity every time an agent requests a full and you don't have a full. You lose an opportunity whenever an agent rejects a draft that lacks the depth the next version will have. When an agent turns down something that wasn't your best work, you've lost the chance for that agent to see how compelling your best work can be.
Is the manuscript unfinished? Don't query.
Is the manuscript unedited? Don't query.
Your beta-readers haven't gotten back to you yet? The perfect song hit the Top 40 and you want it for the closing credits of the movie? You can't imagine anyone turning down your story? You just want to test the waters and see if anyone's interested? Please, please, don't query.
Trust me, I've felt that itchy trigger finger. I've sat on a manuscript I thought would blow the whole world wide open. I know the pressure of wanting it out there right now. I'm betting most writers know it.
It was reportedly said at the Battle of Bunker Hill, "Don't fire until you can see the whites of their eyes." Imagine facing an army of soldiers who intend to kill you. You've got powder in your gun. They're coming closer. You're sure you could hit one if you fired now. They're even closer. Your commander has told you to wait. But they're so near.
Objects in your query field seem closer than they are. That's all I can tell you. Publishing is not a fast industry; the publishers and agents will still be here tomorrow, or in six months. (Note: if they all go away in six months, querying early won't have mattered anyway.) You get one (1) chance to impress an agent with this manuscript, and your story deserves the best you can give it to make that chance a positive for both you and the agent. Deserves to be finished, to be edited, to be critiqued. Deserves to rest and be re-edited, possibly rewritten.
Don't query until you can see the whites of their eyes doesn't have the same ring, but don't let your itchy trigger finger hit "send" too soon. You love your novel. Others will love it too. First it needs your time.
Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.