tales from voicemail: today’s episode “finish the darn book”

In today’s messages….

…someone who was reading our submission guidelines and wanted to know what happened when they reached the step where we request a full manuscript and they didn’t have one. Hmmm…. I’m pretty sure from the rest of the message that this was a first time author. And, well, it’s really difficult to sell a first time author without a complete manuscript. It can even be challenging to sell published authors without one (not counting option materials). Having one sure helps with assessing the market and which houses/editors would be the best match. Plus, the editors want to be sure they can actually finish one. So, it seems the answer would be that they would need to go and finish it.

Lots of really fascinating replies to my post about the first agent-author conversation. I think it might make fodder for several entries on this blog in the near future.

17 responses to “tales from voicemail: today’s episode “finish the darn book”

  1. weighing in today with a memory from my editing days:
    I once fell in love with a proposal that came in via the slush pile. It was well-presented, intelligently throught out, showed a great deal of commercial promise, and a very real, distinct voice. The author had had some short fiction published, but nothing major yet.
    My boss saw the same thing I did (I was a lowly assistant editor in those days) and agreed that I should request the full manuscript.
    You know where this is going, right?
    Alas, the partial was all the author had written. But as soon as it was done, it would be in the mail to me!
    Sixteen years later, that person has yet to sell (as far as I’ve heard/seen) a finished book.
    Me, I have trouble writing a full manuscript that’s not already under contract. Not because I don’t enjoy the writing (mostly), but because I’m inherently lazy, and the threat of an external deadline (especially with the carrot of a paycheck) is often the only thing that gets me out of bed. That said, writing on-spec is occasionally the only way to sell a particular project, because it’s the work iself, not the picch, that does the selling.

  2. Patience
    Finishing a novel (to save nothing of the extraordinary task of revision) requires patience and persistence, which seems to be quite rare among a lot of aspiring writers. From what I can tell, unless you’re already rich and famous the odds of getting something published without the virtue of patience is nil. Patience and a Thick Skin.
    Kimber An

  3. it’s really difficult to sell a first time author without a complete manuscript.
    Even if it wasn’t (and there are many manuscripts that start well, particularly when the first three chapters have been workshopped and polished to perfection) making an exception does not sound wise.
    At the moment, your slushpile contains queries from people who at least sat down and finished. Can you image what opening the query doors to everyone who wrote three chapters would be like?

    • At the moment, my incoming mail also includes a number of letters from people who have *not* finished. This person’s situation is not all that unusual. I get several similar inquiries each week, regardless of what submission guidelines indicate. We even get people who are still at the “I have an idea for a book” stage.

  4. That, to me, is the oddest thing. Why would you, unless you are an ‘established’ novelist, even consider sending out a partial without having the rest? I make sure I am 95% done before I send out anything. That’s to the final edit and the five percent is just for my own satisfaction.
    The whole thing. I don’t consider it a story until it’s finished. Before that it’s just an idea.

    • There are still plenty of stories around of writers who query agents with partials, get accepted, get published, and live to have great careers. (I suspect we don’t hear about people who sell a partial, fail to deliver/deliver something acceptable, and have to return their advance, though I’m certain that must happen, too.)
      (There’s one such story in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, current edition. The guy in question was a well-known reviewer and had many articles/interviews published nationally, but I suppose what many readers will remember is ‘I submitted a partial and got an agent’)

  5. You can do that?
    I’m sort of new on this agent search thing because too many writers told me it was impossible to get one until you’d sold and published a book or two (I write YA). It wasn’t until I met with an editorial assistant who told me that I really should try and get an agent if I expect editors to take me seriously. So, that’s why I’ve been doing it lately. Just to clarify, I’ve always known the value of an agent, I just didn’t know I could query one and be taken seriously without a published novel.
    I’m such a rule follower too. I think someone early on probably said you think up the idea/plot/characters etc., you write the book, you rewrite the book and when you think you’re finished THEN you start querying it. It never would’ve occurred to me to query an unfinished book. But what’s more, it never would’ve occurred to me that other people would do it. I do know a guy who just sold his second YA (same publisher as the first) and they optioned the third based on a paragraph, and gave him 6 months to get them a draft WHILE he revised the other one! I would like that kind of pressure, but I think some people might crumple from it.

    • Re: You can do that?
      While I have heard the old adage: “You need an agent to get published. You need to be published to get an agent…” I know that unpublished writers can get agents. After all, once upon a time all my clients were unpublished (though I wasn’t necessarily the agent for the first book in every case). And I currently have a few new novelists on my list at the moment. It’s certainly competitive (understatement!), though, which is another reason why I think the finished and polished and re-polished manuscript is a necessity.
      Selling an option book is a different scenario based on an existing relationship between the author and the publisher. Most versions of the option language in the publishing contract specify how much of a manuscript and/or outline has to be sent in that case.

  6. I’m trying to be nice and not snicker. I’m also either impressed with the first time author’s arrogance or optimism, whichever it is. The answer could fairly be, don’t worry about it. If you haven’t ever completed a novel, they’ll be able to smell it.

  7. From idea to finished – So not easy
    I finished two novels. The first stinks and needs a major rewrite. The second only needs the last edits to be typed up and I’m actually happy about the story. Now that I Know what it takes to get a manuscript this far, I would think agents snarl at writers who query without having the story finished. It doesn’t take much to get a story going in the wrong direction.
    I am curious though: are these writers at least being honest in the query letter about the work not being finished? Or do you find out after you’ve requested the partial/full? I’ve seen many submission guidelines who capitalize, underline, bold and do everything possible to emphasize the work must be completed. I think the writer puts himself in a very bad position when he/she queries with an unfinished product, especially for fiction.

  8. It drives me crazy
    I always thought that by the time you’re querying agents you mss had to be ready to go as soon as, or eithin a week of that request. This time around though, with my WIP I have that query letter itching at the back of my head. It’s driving me crazy that on two different agent/editors blogs they have said they love stories with [insert element here] and it sounds like they’re describing my WIP. It’s so hard not to start on that query letter (seeing as it usually takes me three tries at least to get it right)

    • Re: It drives me crazy
      Nothing wrong with writing the query letter ahead of time. I wrote mine last week and I’m only just past the half-way point in my novel. I won’t be mailing it out of course for probably a month or so until I finish, but I think it’s good to write the query ahead of time and read it every couple of days for awhile to make sure it’s polished and conveying what you want it to.

  9. first time novelists
    I know a guy who was writing a book and sent out the queries first thing. He started his letters with things like, “This is the best novel you’re ever going to read” and “This novel will make a fabulous movie” and “You’ll be sorry if you don’t take me on because this book is going to be a best seller”. I’m NOT kidding. I’m sure agents get letters like this occasionally, but hopefully not al the time!
    Anyway, the most hilarious part of this story is AFTER he sent out these letters, he confessed to me that he’d killed of ALL of his characters in a plane crash right in the middle of the novel and he wasn’t really sure where to go from there.
    This is a 100% true story. All I could do was nod and say, “Hmmm…well, good luck.”

  10. Submitting the haves and have nots.
    I just finished the rough draft of my first novel, and when I say rough draft I mean ROUGH DRAFT!! But here’s the confusing part. Knowing that I have to have it critiqued and I have to rewrite it and all that joy, but deep down, all I want to do is start on the second novel. It’s like the idea is burning a hole in my brain. I know I need to find an agent, and write my query letter and all that as well, but still, all I find myself doing is writing the sequel.
    Is it easier to sell someone who has a story that already screams ‘series’? or should I stop the writing of the sequel and deal with the first novel?
    You know, when I was a kid, you would have never heard me way “I am going to be a writer when I grow up.” funny how now, I can’t stop.

    • Re: Submitting the haves and have nots.
      Is it easier to sell someone who has a story that already screams ‘series’? or should I stop the writing of the sequel and deal with the first novel?
      Take all this with a grain of salt, as I’m an unpubbed novelist at the moment.
      From what I’ve read on writers’ sites, you should try to make the first a standalone, if at all possible. The reasoning behind this is, if it doesn’t earn out, you probably won’t be able to sell the sequel. (Should I assume this is fantasy?) If you wind up the main problem in the 1st novel but leave a few tendrils which you could then use to write a sequel (a duology), then agents might be more willing to work with you.
      Just my 2 cents. 🙂
      As for working on the 2nd…that’s all up to you as a writer. Can you handle working on 2 WIPs at the same time? If you can, go for it! If you’re going crazy but don’t know if you’ll have enough time to devote to the 2nd one, then I’d suggest sketching out the details, so at least you’ll have something to look at and think about.
      Hope that makes sense. This has been a long draggy day already – and it’s just going on 2:30pm. Blah.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s