A question I get asked quite often: Is my book (or book proposal) ready to go out to agents and editors? Unless it’s clear the writer is jumping the gun, this is a tricky question to answer. True benefits abound from jetting out into the world–even prematurely. Most significantly: If the work is circulating, air is getting in and often giving life to new ideas, leads, and connections.The downsides are obvious–chiefly, a half-baked project blowing your shot with someone you value and self-recrimination over overeagerness raining down shortly after rejection’s sting.
And, this question about submitting is a nearly impossible question to answer for someone else–even if the question is posed to someone who’s seen the latest version of the manuscript or proposal–because no one else can gauge our risk tolerance or predict what stunning new development might be forthcoming.
That said–a phrase that’s a veritable cliche of agent/editor rejection letters– I want to share some questions you could ask yourself if you are on the verge of clicking “Send.” And hopefully, your answers will bring you to the right decision–or at least a bit closer.
- This first question gets asked a fair amount: “Have you taken the book as far as you can on your own?”
This can be a hard question to answer because we often feel that haunting doubt of “I guess I could do more” even if we have no idea what that “more” would be and absolutely DO NOT want to do any more of anything right now. So maybe a better version of this is, “Is there something you know the manuscript needs that you just don’t want to do?”
If the answer is yes, then you might ask yourself 1) Exactly what is it I think is needed and 2) Why exactly don’t I want to do it? Sometimes the answer has to do with not wanting to share something. If that’s the case, you could ask yourself, “Is there a part of that thing I could share? Sometimes we just don’t want to. We are tired and it feels just gross to do it. Or just too scary. If that’s the case, you could ask yourself if you’d be willing to work for just 30 minutes on that thing (or less–See Virginia Valian’s “Learning to Work” for an approach to get yourself to do a tiny amount of work if you’re blocked). It could be that in just a short stint of revision we could make a crucial change. Or we open up a new possibility we want to work on for a bit before clicking send.
Also, “on your own” doesn’t literally mean “on your own.” During this “on your own” phase, hopefully you had at least one trusted writer/editor read it all the way through but perhaps a writers’ group or workshop gave you feedback on individual chapters. Hopefully, you used some of that feedback in revisions.
2. The next question: “Is there anything I could do to the first five pages of the book to make the reader want to keep reading?”
Editorial decisions to keep reading often occur paragraph by paragraph within the first five pages, so this question is worth spending time on.
If you know there’s something you could do to improve the first five pages, it’s worth it to set aside even just an hour to do that revision work. I once heard an editor say, “I can tell within the first line of a book whether the writer has control of the material or if the material has control of the writer.”
You might want to read the first pages of your book’s comps and ask yourself, “How are they pulling the reader in?” Doing just this led me to have a big breakthrough on how to revise the first pages of Writing Is My Drink. (But newsflash–I sold the book proposal before I had this breakthrough that greatly improved the opening. An argument for jumping the gun, perhaps? See next question).
3. Finally: Do you tend to stop yourself from submitting your work out of perfectionism or do you tend to share too early because you crave validation?
There is no right answer to this and we can’t really change our wiring completely, but most writers tend to fall into one of these two groups. I am a share-too-early person (give a shout in the comments, if you are my people!), but almost all my clients and students are stopping themselves out of perfectionism. A friend of mine proofread parts of the final draft How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed (it had already been sold on proposal) and said something like,”It’s really helping me to see your mistakes because I would never allow myself to have this many mistakes and I think that’s what’s stopping me from publishing my work.” And what she said is so, so true for most writers I work with–especially women. They are generally petrified that their work isn’t good enough, although they can’t exactly say why it isn’t good enough. They just feel a sense of falling short. The idea of other people seeing their work as less than perfect is mortifying to them. I don’t love it either, but I guess I was more terrified by the thought of not getting published. And, admittedly, younger me (my 30s and 40s) was a validation hound.
Because I have ADHD, I will always miss many mistakes, and I will always want to be “done” when something is not done. Sometimes, my brain has missed regrettable mistakes. But generally those mistakes were caught and corrected. And generally, all my success has come from sending my work out “too early.” Because it was out there, yes, it got rejected often, but it also got accepted by editors who helped my books transform in unimaginable ways. I could never have made the changes I made without their collaborative efforts. (Thank you forever, Rachel, Anjali, and Millicent).
Writing is extremely collaborative, but in a culture that’s enamored with individualism, this is mostly hidden from us with the exception made for TV’s fabled writers’ rooms. There is so much that happens between editors and writers that MAKES the book what it needs to become. At a Seattle Arts & Lectures talk in early 2020, Carmen Maria Machado shared with a packed Seattle Town Hall that some of the structure of In the Dream House (which is genius and adds so much to the book) came out of conversations with her editor. At another Seattle Arts & Lectures event, I asked Ta-Nehisi Coates when he decided to structure Between the World and Me as a letter to his son. He said something like, “Oh that came very late. My editor suggested it.” What?? I was so excited to hear him say this. The letter format starting with the “Son,” address at the beginning of the book changes everything. It raises the stakes of the book sky high and makes everything between its covers not only a brilliant history but also a relationship story. For me, this structural change made the book a gut punch.
I don’t think we often lose opportunities by sending out “early.” If it’s not for them now, it likely never would be. But if we hold onto a manuscript too long, we might lose our urgency and let the moment pass us by. Our imperfect creation might miss its chance to takes its place in the world. To become the perfect book for the readers who need it.