Is your novel ready to show an agent?

It’s the early days of the new year, but already I’m fielding inquiries from novelists about when I will be accepting submissions again.

I’m grateful for your interest and attention. My books will open later this month, and I will let you know by posting my submissions guidelines then.

In this post I want to give you some practical advice to help you determine whether or not your work is at the stage where you should show it to an agent.

While I’m thrilled at the idea that there’s a wonderful novel out there somewhere waiting for me to discover it, the truth is that the majority of the unsolicited manuscripts I’ll receive in late January will be nowhere near ready for submission to an agent. Which means that I will have to write you a polite note saying thank you but I will pass. And I don’t like having to do that because I always want to say yes, and it’s tedious to have to think of different ways to say no.

So in an effort to save us all time and heartache, here are some tips for those considering submitting a novel to me sometime down the track, based on common weaknesses I see in unsolicited submissions.

Tip #1: Get a well-read person, preferably persons, to read your manuscript. These beta-readers are not your partner, best friend or parent. They are people you know through work or a volunteer association or some kind of group. You’re not necessarily good friends but you know that they read a lot. If they agree to read your work, ask them lots of questions to get the truth – what they liked, didn’t like, what they didn’t understand. (Now I need to write a separate post on what questions to ask in to elicit the specific feedback you need.) And buy them something to acknowledge how generous they were to read your writing, even if you are finding it tough to swallow some of their comments.

Tip #2: Make sure you have told your story in scenes in which the reader watches action unfold. Often we are so eager to tell the reader everything that we forget that most of that information can be revealed during dramatised scenes in which something happens. Cut backstory (eg how Ed and Jane came to meet five years ago) and show us anything relevant to the story by taking us to a scene of that moment.

Tip #3: Is it clear where your story occurs? It is astonishing how many manuscripts fail to establish a sense of geographical place.

Tip #4: Does your writing engage the reader’s senses? This may sound like an odd question, but details of sight, sound, taste, touch and even smell can be powerful ways of connecting with readers. Too many narratives become lost and stuck inside a main character’s head, becoming detached from any sense of the external environment.

Tip #5: How many words is it? If your novel is more than 90,000 you had better be sure that every word is necessary. Be ruthless about getting rid of cliches, repeated words, redundant characters and so forth.

Tip #6: Use the Internet. We have this infinite information resource for better and for worse. In the case of preparing your manuscript for submitting to an agent, search for tips on revision. You will find way more than you need, but the process will make you better informed about how other writers approach rewriting and editing their work.

I’ll leave it there for now as I have to eat. I have a favour to ask of you: I would love it if you would post some of your own suggestions in the comments below, plus any links to useful articles you’ve discovered. I will add to this tip-list with an updated post. Thanks in advance for your comments.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Put your manuscript away for at least 6 weeks then re-read with fresh eyes before passing it onto an agent. You may discover at this point that it is not ready yet.

    1. Thanks Brigid. An excellent tip! I did this myself with the work-in-progress in September-October last year, and what do you know, here I am in January doing a substantial revision. Good luck with your novel –Virginia

  2. Thanks for the very useful post! I recently did a search for just those sorts of ‘editing tips’ and found two really useful ones… I can’t for the life of me remember the web addresses now but they were on different sites:
    – check and remove ‘suddenly’ – I was gobsmacked at how much of my action relied on ‘suddenly’ and it was an excellent excercise to go through the manuscript and see how much more ‘present’ it became when I removed them. Counter-intuitive because you’d think ‘suddenly’ would be a good marker to tell readers something was sudden… but it’s surprisingly annoying and deadening
    – check and remove ‘felt’, ‘feels’ etc. the effect of doing this was to add a level of strength and clarity to the action. ‘He felt himself hunching’ becomes ‘He hunched’. and Kazam! you’re doing it with him.
    They seemed so obvious and I couldn’t believe I missed them!

    1. These are great examples of small edits that fix a recurring problem. I must admit, however, if I read a fiction manuscript where I loved the story but the prose was full of “suddenly’s,” I would not pass on it but work with the writer to tidy up the prose. This kind of minor copyediting is a lot further along the path than substantial reworking of a plot or characterisation or major cutting — and a lot easier to fix. Thanks for your comment — and for your New York story in Sleepers Almanac! –Virginia

  3. Thanks for this!

    Well one thing that was passed onto me (via a literary agent) from the head of kids publishing at a major publishing house here in Australia (woo woo!) was the importance of not only the first page, but the first paragraph AND the first couple of lines! She said that if she wasn’t “grabbed” by the first few lines, then she knew that the MS wasn’t going to be for her.

    This piece of information caused me to question my need for a Prologue (why did I need it? Probably because the acutal opening was too slow moving!) and eventually resulted in me cutting and chopping the Prologue, AND the first three whole chapters! Wow.

    The whole process was actually quite liberating and the ‘quick cut to the chase’ helped to set the pace for the rest of the book (and helped me chop 30,000 words: yes, Virginia, I was one of those with a unnecessarily huge MS!!).

    I’ll stop prattling on now, but it’s interesting that you only really reach the point where you can be so objective with your work once you think you are ready to submit it…then you realise that it may actually be another draft (or 2 away)!

    1. Hi Naomi. This is such a valuable and practical comment – thank you so much for writing.
      The advice you heard about the first page is spot on. There must be something about the writing from the first lines that grabs me. I want to feel that I’m in the hands of a storyteller, and that the storyteller’s voice is one I want to keep reading.
      I cannot tell you the number of manuscripts I see with Prologues. In almost every single case the Prologue is unnecessary and its prose is almost always “purple” – heavy-handed and self-conscious and either too earnest or too cryptic. You are quite right that the existence of a Prologue usually indicates that the writer either does not trust the reader to understand the story she is about to tell, or that there is action in the Prologue that really should just be the opening of the book. It’s wonderfully astute of you to have cut the first three chapters in addition to your Prologue. Being able to decide where your story really begins is the sign of maturity as a writer — and something that is so hard to do, especially by yourself. Which is why you need serious readers to review your work before submitting to an agent. Thank you again for commenting, and good luck with your writing. –Virginia

  4. Thanks Virginia for another great post and happy New Year!
    Would you say that these are the same tips to use before submitting a non-fiction manuscript also?
    ~ Katie

    1. Hi Katie,
      Great question. While the general points about strengthening your writing through revision do apply across fiction and nonfiction writing, I do believe nonfiction writers have some other things to think about before approaching an agent. These will be the subject of another post in the not too distant future. Thanks for reading and commenting –Virginia

  5. Yair . . . I have actually found it difficult to get any meaningful comment from readers and have relied on my own intuition.

    I have been working with my agent on (what she says) are minimal alterations to a work of “literary women’s fiction” . . . the thing is though I can pretty well recite the piece word by word, particularly the first few chapters.

    Until you can do that I don’t think your work is ready to send off.


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