QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Is Your Work Ready for an Agent?

Base image: DragonTash
One of the biggest mistakes writers make is approaching agents before they’re really ready.

Hard love: Just because you’ve finished a book and you’re happy with it doesn’t mean it’s good. And just because your dog, your significant other, your best friend, and your parents love it also doesn’t mean it’s good. Assuming you want strangers to read your work and think it’s good, you need to have some more objective eyes take a look. And you don’t want to assume that an agent will do the editing for you if there are problems. Many agents will work with you on polishing a manuscript that’s already in great shape, but major flaws are a good way to get a rejection.

Beta readers, who are usually other writers who will read and comment on your work in exchange for you reading and commenting on theirs, will see things you can’t. (If you're not sure how to go about finding betas, check out the QueryTracker forum. Make some friends and you're likely to find betas!)

I’ll never forget how one of my novels began with a heroine who was literally on the run for her life, and she was wearing the wrong shoes. Dramatically, it made sense to me to put her in heels—after all, she had gone to work that morning, and it’s harder to run in heels. But as betas pointed out to me, if she’d felt threatened for days by the people who ended up chasing her, she’d have had to be kind of dumb to keep wearing heels. And that was a turnoff—a heroine who made obviously stupid mistakes.

These days, she’s wearing sneakers.

We all make silly mistakes like that. Not because we’re dumb, but because we’re so wrapped up in the story that logic sometimes escapes us. Especially if we’ve rewritten something multiple times. Sometimes we change something in one place that necessitates a change elsewhere, and we don’t notice that the other change needs to be made.

Once your betas have worked your story over, you may also want to consider a freelance editor—someone you pay to correct problems in your novel before you begin submitting.

Editors usually have a more advanced skill set than beta readers. They may also edit on multiple levels, depending on what you need. If you need developmental or structural edits (i.e. you need the entire book checked for any and all structural problems, including plot, pacing, characterization, and theme), they will cost you more than line edits (i.e. comments and suggestions at the sentence level, including sentences that don’t flow well or make sense), which will cost you more than copy edits (typos, missed words, inconsistencies).

Not all freelance editors are equal, so make sure to shop around and ask writerly friends who they’ve used and liked, and why. Also be sure to check Preditors and Editors for warnings before hiring anyone. Also realize that a good editor will probably cost you a lot more than pocket change.

Some people want to bypass the beta reader stage and jump right to a freelance editor. Though I’m sure there are exceptions, typically this will end up costing you more money than if you'd used betas first because the editor is also doing the work of the betas. You will also get a more helpful edit from a freelancer if betas have helped you out. When there are big things wrong with a novel (major inconsistencies, poor writing, etc.), the editor has to focus on those. Big problems hide the details. Think about it like this: If you broke your leg, and especially if you had an open fracture, that’s what everyone would be worried about—not any less extreme cuts elsewhere on your body.

Once your manuscript is as polished as you can possibly get it and your betas (and/or editor) can't find much to complain about, you're ready for the next step—querying. More on finding and dealing with agents in future posts!*

So—what are your tips? How do you know when you’re ready for an agent?

*I’ve gotten several questions via email recently asking me about dealing with agents, so this is the second part of a series of posts on figuring out whether you need an agent, whether you’re ready to start querying, finding a reputable agent, and choosing someone who really “gets” your work. Of course, QueryTracker.net will help you through all of the stages, and fellow QT blogger Jane Lebak recently wrote a great post on How to Use the QueryTracker Site.

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook


Unknown said...

This is probably the hardest lesson a new writer will learn - I know it took me a couple of truly embarrasing submittals to figure it our. I can only hope the agents in question either forget or forgive me.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

I like to think that time helps agents forget. I think most of us have done this, so don't feel too badly about it! Hopefully knowing what steps one should take before submitting will help other writers figure out how to regroup and get farther with their next submission.