Is your novel ready to show an agent?

by | Jan 9, 2013 | Blog, Improve your writing | 9 comments

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.

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