Chip MacGregor

June 7, 2016

Ask the Agent: What do I do with my finished novel manuscript?


Someone wrote to ask, “If a writer has never published before, but has a completed novel manuscript ready to go, what would you recommend he/she do with it?”

I like this question, since it’s a situation I see frequently. If an author has a manuscript done, I’d encourage him or her to spend some time creating a few other pieces: a one or two page synopsis, a quick overview, a one sentence hook, a good list of three or four comparable titles to give the novel context, and a one-page bio that focuses on platform. All of those things are going to be important when you get to the important stage of talking to an agent or editor.

Then, I’d probably say, “The first draft of any novel is usually bad.” So if this is actually a first draft, I’d encourage the author to use the next couple months to polish it. Take it to a critique group. Have writer friends read and comment. Get it in front of an editor. Pay for a professional critique, if that’s possible. Not every bit of advice you get will be great (or even correct), but listening to the wisdom of others, particularly those who are farther down the path, can help you improve your book. Take your time to improve it, rather than typing the last word and sending it off. Make it as sharp as possible, since that’s the best way to get it published.

Getting your first novel done is an accomplishment, and you should feel proud. But the fact is, not many authors get their first book published. The average in the industry is six or seven — meaning most writers have completed six or seven novel manuscripts before they get done with one that is ready for publication. (You don’t have to take my word on that — check out my numbers. It’s pretty widely accepted in the industry.) I realize that can be deflating… “I got my manuscript done, and nobody wants it?” But this is both an art and a business, and both areas are looking for quality. So don’t be too discouraged — just keep writing. Once this one is completed to the best of your abilities, move on to the next story.

Next, I’d say to the author, “Check out ALL your options.” Should they introduce themselves to agents? Sure. Should they try to get it in front of some editors at a writing conference? Of course. Should they consider small presses? By all means. Should they explore self-publishing? Yes! The world of publishing has changed completed over the past five years, so start looking at the various options you have as a novelist. But don’t jump on the first opportunity that presents itself. Take your time, get some counsel, and try to move forward professionally. You may find it best to sign with an agent, who can get it in front of good editors. But you may find you’re writing to a niche audience, and the best step is to land with a micro-publisher who specializes in reaching that particular segment of the market. Or perhaps the best option is to simply get it up on Amazon and see how people respond. As I said, check your options, get some counsel, then decide. This is one of the reasons I like writing conferences, since they afford you an opportunity to be with other writers who can share their wisdom and experience.

My take: Too many writers are in a hurry. The writers who get it done, THEN take steps to get it polished and ready, will stand a better chance at succeeding. Does that help?

I’d love to hear from some unpublished novelists… What questions are you wanting to ask an agent?

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1 Comment

  • John Howard Prin says:

    You’ve laid out another useful set of wise tips. As the writer of more than one novel manuscript, I fit the description of “an unpublished author.” Reading these, I also benefitted from being reminded of the other criteria you cited for getting a project noticed, many of which I’m getting ready right now for a contemporary love story that I want to pitch traditionally . . . or to relaunch online (second choice).

    I’ve learned over three decades of writing nonfiction and publishing articles to take the time to polish a project, and to polish it again, and to polish it yet again. Two years ago I self-published this same love story about a fraying marriage on Amazon — first one edition, then a second edition — and recently I’ve spent weeks revising the story a third time (yep, I’m on the slow train!). It was heartening to know that my preparation of ancillary pieces were the ones you advised: a 2-page synopsis, a quick overview (the back cover copy), a one-sentence hook (“God designed us for love and beauty, and that includes beautiful sex”), and a one-page bio (which needs more focus on my platform).

    Your comments have reassured me and added details about the way agents look at new projects, both the art side and business side. Having written five movie-length screenplays early in my career, I’ve learned over and over to slow down and to NOT be in a hurry. Now, with a fresh manuscript “as sharp as possible” and dozens of reviews, I feel better prepared to attract an agent who will represent my gem to traditional publishers.

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