Working your manuscript

So, you have a finished manuscript and it’s time to sell the thing.  Good for you.  That is a major accomplishment and something you should be very proud of.  Don’t you love it when you tell people you write and they say, “Are you going to publish it?”  As though you have some control over that outcome.  By now you have probably met other authors who tell horror stories of how many years they’ve been writing and still can’t break into the market.  It’s enough to make you doubt you’ll ever get “the call”.
Well, enough of that kind of thinking.  This article isn’t about the impossibilities of getting published; this is about developing a plan to make it happen.  So let’s tackle the issue, shall we?

Step One:
Finish the manuscript.  Seems silly, but that is a basic that can’t be overlooked.  Never send a query for an unfinished manuscript unless you are already a multi-published author and in that case, why are you reading this article?

Step two:
Write a strong query letter (see article on query letters).  Your query is the first impression you give about your work.  It’s vitally important that you don’t slop over it.

Step three:
Decide your plan of action.  Are you going to target agents, editors, or a combination of the two?  There are advantages to both.  (See the article on query letters).  Once you make that decision, compile a list of agents/editors who might be interested in your work.  Don’t send your work to someone who doesn’t want that type of manuscript.  It only ensures a form rejection letter is on your way.  This information is easily attainable by visiting the websites of the agencies/houses.

Step four:
Okay, now is the part most people omit.  The first three steps are fairly easy and anyone who has ever sent a query has probably already done them.  This is where the chaff gets separated from the grain.  Send out six queries.  Yes, six.  I recommend starting with e-queries, as most houses/agencies prefer them now.  You can send some snail mail queries too, but don’t forget the electronic submission route.  It’s free and more importantly, it’s quick.

Step five:
If you send out 6 e-queries, you will start receiving responses in a matter of days, sometimes, hours.  This next suggestion is the one that usually has authors looking at me like I’m crazy.  For every response you receive—even if it’s a request for more material—send out another query.  Think of your query letters as fishing lines dangling off a boat.  Who has a better chance of catching a fish, the person who has six (or more) in the water, or the person who has one?

This business is very slow.  My first sale came from a partial that sat on my editor’s desk for a year and a half before she had a chance to read it.  That’s not too unusual.  But, you can’t wait a year and a half for each of your responses and I didn’t.  Not too long after I sent it to her I found an agent who took over the querying process for me, but she still continued to work my manuscripts.  At the time of sale, we had 10 full manuscripts out to 4 different houses (five different novels).

Step six:
Prepare a chart or table to keep track of your responses.  You need to know who you sent what to and when.  See example below:


What they want

Date sent








If you keep 6 queries floating at all times, you’ll need to keep this where you can get access because the responses will start arriving almost daily. 

Step seven:
Expect rejections and don’t let them bum you out.  Okay, I know that’s easier said than done.  But based on the non-scientific research I’d done, most authors received between 25-35 rejections before they make that first sale.  So, every time I received a rejection I thought, ‘Yes!  One more ‘no’ closer to a sale!’  Psychological BS?  Of course it was, but it kept me from crawling into a corner and not sending out my work for fear of the dreaded rejection letter.  I had around 40 rejections before I found an agent wanting to represent me, and we had probably 10 rejections from editors before my first sale.  Granted, those were from 5 different manuscripts, but a rejection is a rejection even if it comes with variety.

Step eight:
Very important, this step -- start a new manuscript.  Don’t spend the next decade trying to fix something for the sake of fixing it.  The more you write, the better you will become.  You will never get a manuscript perfect because each time you look at it, you will find something else that needs fixed due to your increased understanding of the craft.  Start a new manuscript that allows you to begin with stronger foundations and better skills.  It’s easier to build a new house the right way, than it is to remodel an old one.  And don’t be tempted to write the sequel to book one until book one sells.  Sequels are a waste of time unless they have the potential to stand alone or you’re already published.  Each time you take new characters, premises and settings and work them together, you become a stronger writer.

This process will give you an inventory.  I was writing book number 8 when I made my first sale and that was manuscript number 5.  I was finishing number 5 when my agent offered representation for number 2.  (Number one I didn’t show anyone because it was abysmal).  My agent was surprised when I handed her a stack of manuscripts to work, a stack I would not have been able to give her if I’d spent 2 years re- working number 2.  And I would like to point out, the first sale was not the book my agent read when she decided to represent me.

Step nine:
This step maybe should be number one.  Set a specific goal of when you want to be published.  If you are just starting out, five years is a reasonable goal.  If you’ve already finished a manuscript, three might be reasonable, but whatever you think is an attainable time line, set it.  Then every decision you make pertaining to your writing career should be directed toward that goal.

For example, I decided to query agents first since many houses will not accept un-agented manuscripts.  Then, I entered contests, first for feedback, then to get my work in front of editors.  I never entered a contest that didn’t have an editor I was targeting as the final round judge.  In the mean time, I was writing like crazy and studying craft and producing inventory.
 My goal was to sell by the time I retired.  I retired from teaching in May of 2008 and made my first sale four weeks after.  Pretty close, eh?



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