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View Full Version : When is a Manuscript Ready?



mbowman
11-05-2015, 02:58 PM
I've tried getting two books published in years past, both to failure because the book wasn't ready. I've kept my current manuscript and have been picking at it and going over it over the last year. I've gotten some good feedback in SYW and from some beta readers and I'm down to the part where I'm picking and stressing about one word or two on a page, so I'm wondering, how "ready" does a manuscript have to be for an agent?

Does the style have to be flawless? Or is the story more important? I know you won't get published with bad style, but I'm wondering at what point do you consider a manuscript "ready"?

Cathy C
11-05-2015, 03:42 PM
I guess for myself, I considered my first book (the one that got my agent) "ready" when I had the grammer, composition, punctuation and spelling as close to perfect as I could. Why those? Because if any of them had problems, they distracted from getting the reader wrapped up in the story. Obviously, I did my best to make the plot interesting and the characters believable. But based on my first edit letter, I had a long way to go before it was TRULY ready as far as plot and characters. :ROFL:

Still, the agent was able to see what she believed to be the diamond in the rough, mostly because the rough had been mowed and the hedges trimmed nicely. She actually said something similar when I asked her years later what grabbed her. :)

Jo Zebedee
11-05-2015, 04:29 PM
When the amount of improvement from a pass doesn't merit the time it took to do it?

AndiBabe
11-05-2015, 07:14 PM
When beta readers are only coming up with small issues, but aren't commenting on big things: voice, characterization, or plot (major plot threads, at least).

mayqueen
11-05-2015, 08:05 PM
This is a very hard question to answer, for me. I've queried several MSs that weren't ready and one that was (but ultimately wasn't marketable). For both that weren't ready, I thought they were ready and didn't know they weren't until I'd started querying. It was only through querying that I learned they weren't ready. In general, I think it's a good idea to make sure you've let the manuscript "rest" for at least a month, had at least three beta-readers, and done a close line-by-line editing. But you might not know the manuscript isn't ready until you start querying, unfortunately.

When it comes to prose versus story, both have to be amazing. Sloppy prose will kill a great story, and the most gorgeous prose won't carry a bad story.

You said you're been through SYW. Have you been through QLH? Sometimes you can catch problems with a manuscript when you workshop the query.

Victor Douglas
11-05-2015, 08:10 PM
Unfortunately, I think you have to hire a professional editor to tell you when it's ready. Someone who has edited published material in the past. you need an experienced and objective viewpoint to really know- I think we are all simultaneously biased too much in our own favor and against ourselves at the same time to attain that objective point of view. Even famous published authors obtain the services of a good editor- I think it's indispensable. Of course a good agent can help too.

Toothpaste
11-05-2015, 09:11 PM
Unfortunately, I think you have to hire a professional editor to tell you when it's ready. Someone who has edited published material in the past. you need an experienced and objective viewpoint to really know- I think we are all simultaneously biased too much in our own favor and against ourselves at the same time to attain that objective point of view. Even famous published authors obtain the services of a good editor- I think it's indispensable. Of course a good agent can help too.

No. Just . . . no. This is absolutely not something you need to do. Yes it is something one can do if one wants to, but I don't actually know any agented/published authors personally who went this route. You can absolutely assess whether your book is ready for submission without having to pay an editor for their opinion. Me, I just had a gut feeling. Other friends relied on beta readers.

Now this isn't to say hiring an editor is wrong, but it is an expense and not all of us have the funds for such an expense. Further it's an unnecessary one in order to determine when you are ready.

KTC
11-05-2015, 09:36 PM
Unfortunately, I think you have to hire a professional editor to tell you when it's ready. Someone who has edited published material in the past. you need an experienced and objective viewpoint to really know- I think we are all simultaneously biased too much in our own favor and against ourselves at the same time to attain that objective point of view. Even famous published authors obtain the services of a good editor- I think it's indispensable. Of course a good agent can help too.

NOT IN THE LEAST!

It's ready when you have polished it to the best of your ability. When it's the best that you could do---with or without beta readers feedback, whichever works best for you---then you submit it to agent/publisher.

They're not expecting perfect ready for the shelves. They're expecting your best. Whoever picks it up will have editor(s) work with you on making it ready for market. DON'T HIRE AN EDITOR.

AndiBabe
11-05-2015, 09:55 PM
I agree that you don't need to hire an editor. However, if you have trouble with grammar and punctuation and don't have anyone willing to make line edits for free, such as a critique partner, then maybe it's worth it to hire a proofreader. This is different from an editor because they'd only be looking for grammar and punctuation issues. I have a writing friend who has great concepts, plot, etc but horrendous grammar and punctuation, even after we've pointed out what the issues are. If she sent out her manuscript like that, no one would be able to see past the mistakes to notice all the good things about it.

Also, it's important to realize that you can only make it as good as you know how. If you've revised and revised and think it's fine, then learn after querying that it wasn't quite ready, there's nothing you can do about that. Just be thankful you learned what the issue is and revise again and send it out some more.

When people say don't send it out too early, they're probably talking about those who send out a first draft, where no one has reviewed it at all. I know people who have done that, and it never worked.

KTC
11-05-2015, 10:02 PM
When people say don't send it out too early, they're probably talking about those who send out a first draft, where no one has reviewed it at all. I know people who have done that, and it never worked.

Absolutely, this. People get excited after typing THE END and they want to show the world their baby. You really should go back to the beginning and polish.

And, yes, I was saying a professional editor isn't NECESSARY. It's something some people do and, I'm guessing, most don't. I wanted to say that is not something you are expected to do...the advice given sounded like THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO advice to me.

Chipotle
11-05-2015, 11:27 PM
And, yes, I was saying a professional editor isn't NECESSARY. It's something some people do and, I'm guessing, most don't.

My impression is that hiring an editor is something you should do if you're a self-publisher, rather than something you should do if you're submitting to a publisher who presumably, well, hires editors.

KTC
11-05-2015, 11:47 PM
My impression is that hiring an editor is something you should do if you're a self-publisher, rather than something you should do if you're submitting to a publisher who presumably, well, hires editors.

That's another good point. If you're self-publishing, it's probably a good idea. You have one chance to make a first impression. But, personally, I would never do it for a manuscript I planned on submitting to agents or publishers directly.

Jamesaritchie
11-05-2015, 11:58 PM
Unfortunately, I think you have to hire a professional editor to tell you when it's ready. Someone who has edited published material in the past. you need an experienced and objective viewpoint to really know- I think we are all simultaneously biased too much in our own favor and against ourselves at the same time to attain that objective point of view. Even famous published authors obtain the services of a good editor- I think it's indispensable. Of course a good agent can help too.

I've yet to meet or read about a professional editor who knows a rat's behind about when a manuscript is ready. Even the best of them is unlikely to have a clue what the agent or editor for your book wants. And, no, even famous, published writers do not use the services of a hired editor. In thirty-seven years in this business, I've known only one who did, and his problem was lack of faith in himself. The editor did nothing to help his manuscripts, but he used the editor time after time. . .right until is books stopped selling, and he was no longer famous.

Do you seriously think famous, published writers actually use hired editors? If so, you certainly haven't done any research on the subject at all. Probably did read an ad one of these editors put up, though.

The simple fact is that if you need to hire an editor, you will never, ever be anywhere near as good a writer as you should be. .

mbowman
11-06-2015, 12:03 AM
You said you're been through SYW. Have you been through QLH? Sometimes you can catch problems with a manuscript when you workshop the query. Yeah I got my query done first through QLH because I figured I could send it out to a few agents who don't require pages with the letter to test it out on its own.

Getting the query done made me realize some points in the novel weren't as clear as they should be (this is a novel about ghosts, body snatching and soul transfers so it can be confusing) so I went back and made everything as clear as I could from that.

Jamesaritchie
11-06-2015, 12:09 AM
You manuscript is ready when you can't find an obvious way to make a major change. But here's the thing, chances are it will never be publishable, regardless of what you, or beta readers, especially beta readers, or hired editor, of anyone else in the world does.

Point to a hundred first time novelists at random, and you can safely bet that not one of them has a publishable manuscript.

This is just how it works. If you put too much time, too much effort, into one novel in an effort to get published, you will probably never be published because you won't get around to writing the novel that is publishable, which, for most, is four or five novels down the line.

Off the top of my head, I can think of about two dozen writers who sold their first novel. I can think of half a dozen who sold the first draft of their first novel. I'm one of them. But this is not the norm.

But here's something else. You said the first two didn't sell because they weren't ready. Chances are that isn't true. A manuscript doesn't have to be anywhere near perfect in any way to land an agent, and a publisher. If the basics are there, if story and character and writing are even close to professional standards, they'll work with you to get it ready. If these things aren't close to professional standards, they probably never will be.

Not everything can be fixed. Bad manuscript nearly always stay bad, no matter who works on them, or for how long.

his said, if you aren't keeping these two novels in circulation, the fault may be with you, not with the manuscripts. Even a very good novel may need to be read by a dozen agents and/or editors before anyone nibbles. Query letter rejections do not count. A rejection on a query letter does not mean your novel was rejected. It only means your query letter was rejected. When you find a way to convince a dozen agents, and a dozen editors, to read your actual novel, and they all say no, then you might be able to say it isn't ready. Until then, you can't know.

Jamesaritchie
11-06-2015, 12:18 AM
When people say don't send it out too early, they're probably talking about those who send out a first draft, where no one has reviewed it at all. I know people who have done that, and it never worked.

My experience is that beta reader make novels worse, not better. You say you know people who have done that, and it never worked. So what? I see thousands of manuscripts where writers used all sorts of beta readers, editors, soothsayers, and you name it. It almost never works there, either. In fact, from reading slush, I'd say it works considerably less often there.

I don't think in means don't send out a first draft. Most know better than to do this, though I sold the first draft of my first novel, and the first draft of a lot of other things, usually because of deadline pressure. Anyway, manuscript is ready when it's good enough to sell, or good enough to make an agent or editor ask for a revision, and this can be on the first draft, or on the fifth draft. My experience is also that, while sending out first drafts is generally a bad, bad idea, if the first draft isn't pretty darned good, the final draft won't be much better. "All first drafts are shi*t" is the dumbest statement any writer ever made, and even Hemingway didn't mean it the way people take it.

KTC
11-06-2015, 12:22 AM
"All first drafts are shi*t" is the dumbest statement any writer ever made, and even Hemingway didn't mean it the way people take it.

Man, I so whole-heartedly agree with this!!!!!!!!! I hate when people use that phrase. It makes them sound dumb.

Aggy B.
11-06-2015, 12:34 AM
I had a beta-reader who kept me from querying a book I really liked, but ultimately lacked the kind of conflict necessary to make it a good novel. I then did two more revisions after that - one on an R&R from an agent who ended disliking what I'd done, and one after my (now) agent said he loved the story but some of the plotting needed more work before he could submit it.

In general, I can always think of things to change. The question I ask myself is "Is this the story I want to tell?" And "Have I written it to the best of my current ability?" When the answer to both questions is yes, I send it onward. (At this point that means sending it to my agent, not querying it. But there's still a standard of Is It Ready? I want to meet before I show it to him in it's entirety.) Sometimes he sends back noted on things he thinks could still be improved. Sometimes he just wants another typo killing round.

(BTW, I make changes and revisions I agree with, because I respect his insight. But that doesn't mean I just rewrite stuff because he sees it differently.)

I also don't hire an outside editor to help me clean up the MS (I learned how to do that myself). Nor do I use beta readers as line editors. But they are helpful in finding areas where the story is too slow or missing pieces.

Fuchsia Groan
11-06-2015, 07:44 AM
First drafts vary wildly in quality because some people edit as they draft, or in between bouts of drafting, and others do not.

In the days before word processing (which I remember!), it was easy to say what a "first draft" was. The 100-page Star Wars fan fic I wrote on my manual Olivetti at age 14? First draft, never to have a second. The ability to write clean on that first draft was a huge time saver.

Now I save various versions of my books, but I have no idea what the "first draft" is, because I alternate drafting and editing, and often edit as I go. This is my natural way of working and doesn't hamper my creativity in the least, but it isn't natural to everyone. For other writers, especially those doing NaNo and focusing on quantity over quality, a first draft might be drastically different from the final, submittable version.

I recommend taking some time off (say, a month) to get fresh eyes before making a final pass through the manuscript. And I think a beta reader or CP can help you see important plot and characterization issues. But it has to be the right beta — someone who understands your genre, gets what you are going for, and is willing and able to be critical. That can be hard to find. I recommend seeing at least pieces of each other's writing before you embark on a beta relationship. A blanket "This is awesome!" from a beta reader probably doesn't mean much; a "This is great BUT here are the parts that need to be better" can help you enormously. Think in advance about what you want feedback on, where your uncertainties lie, and tell the beta reader.

Despite all that, I've had mss. that betas loved and agents hated. It happens. You can never be sure that anything is "ready," but you can at least make sure that it has basic readability (minimum of grammatical errors and typos) and that you've given yourself time to view it with fresh eyes and make sure you're doing justice to your vision of the book. As a reviewer, I've seen more than a few self-published books that were just a few drafts away from being publishable. (Most common problem: too many freaking words the author refused to cut, though they slowed down the story.) You owe it to yourself to give your book the best chance.

wittyblather
11-06-2015, 09:51 PM
Out of curiosity, what did Hemingway mean when he said "the first draft of anything is shit," if it's not the obvious interpretation? Personally, if I think my first draft has to be near final draft quality, I freeze. Some freedom to be crappy in the first draft lets me be more productive.

Victor Douglas
11-07-2015, 06:29 AM
I probably stated my opinion much too strongly- I shouldn't have made it sound like hiring a professional editor is something that everyone has to do. I'm not sure that there is anything that everyone has to do. I should have said that I've used editors and beta readers and I feel that they helped me understand what my WIP was missing and what it needed to become better. On the other hand, I think some of the responses posted here are a bit harsh- I dont agree that if the first draft isnt good then it will never be good. Or if the story doesn't have all the right elements from the beginning then it never will, no matter what the author does with it. That may well be true for an experienced author, someone who has been doing this for a number of years and has a series of manuscripts under their belt. But to a first time author that sounds very discouraging, and I can imagine someone just giving up because they don't think there is anything they can to to improve their work. Even if the odds are against them, I still think we should encourage people to try their best.

Fuchsia Groan
11-07-2015, 07:46 AM
I think many first drafts are indeed terrible from the author's POV, because part of learning to write is learning to be critical of your own writing. Maybe some first drafts of great books are terrible from a reader's POV, too-- but, because of word processing, few readers are likely to see a true first draft.

I write fast, but even when I have just two hours to write a movie review on deadline, I'll still read and tweak it at least three times before I think it's "ready." If anyone can turn in perfect first drafts with no revision whatsoever, more power to them, but that has not been a necessary skill since the typewriter era. (Even back then, I often wrote a first draft in longhand and found that helped a lot. Sometimes I still do, because typing stuff up forces you to rethink.)

Victor Douglas
11-08-2015, 02:02 AM
I wonder if "drafts" are an obsolete concept? I go back and revise a little at a time hundreds of times until I'm satisfied with it, but I dont think of every file version I save as an independent "draft".

kkbe
11-08-2015, 02:53 AM
I wonder if "drafts" are an obsolete concept? I go back and revise a little at a time hundreds of times until I'm satisfied with it, but I dont think of every file version I save as an independent "draft".Not sure if they're obsolete, but I do know that no manuscript of mine--after the very first--had discreet 'drafts.' Any more, I edit as I go, hundreds of minute and major edits, which continue until such time as I am satisfied.

Which ain't often. :)

VeryBigBeard
11-08-2015, 03:42 AM
Drafts aren't obsolete in the slightest. Some people use them, some people don't. It's entirely personal preference.

The thing about grammar and editors is true, but at some point if you want to be an author you are going to have to learn how to use grammar. Sure, there are examples of authors who can't spell, but even that's usually overstated--they know how to craft a story with their tools. Mistakes will of course happen and acquisitions editors know this, and can read past the basic stuff. If the mistakes are obscuring the story, you have a bigger problem.

If you wanted to be a carpenter, you'd need to learn how to use a drill. Not every hole would be seamless. Not every board is always planed perfectly. But you know how. Same with writing. Even a hired editor won't be able to fix the major mistakes and one who does won't be able to do it the way your story needs. Worst, you won't learn the right way to use the tools of language. When you do get a book published, and the publisher wants the sequel in some ridiculously short time-span, you won't be able to get an editor. You need to be able to get to basic competency on your own. Over time, you learn to draft reasonably clean, too. It's a developed skill and it helps.

This is your story. Write it the way you need to. That's how you know the MS is ready: you're satisfied. The trick to this is you have to approach it with a kind of professional's vigour--because, again, you want to do this professionally. It's a balance between always wanting to tinker and thinking it's awesome. I tend to come down a bit too far on the "always want to tinker" side, but I know that about myself and I know to keep a reserve (often, for me, established on that first draft) of irrational adoration so that when it comes time to hack it to pieces I have something to keep me going. Then it's about expectation and realization. Try setting specific revision goals: think about what's not quite there yet in the MS (it should be something specific, not "ehhh, I just don't feel it"--if you get the latter you don't have an actionable goal; you either have to completely blow it up and rethink, which isn't always a horrible strategy, or seek out some betas and try to figure out the specific thing causing that feeling) and then target your revisions to that. If you're not finding anything specific, it's probably ready.

One of the biggest things I've learned since leaping from journalism to tech is the danger of never finishing. Happens to software a lot, where you can always add another feature and the thing is never ready. There's a big push now to get things to market and add features through updates later. This has its downsides, but I try to remember the underlying principle when writing because it is ALWAYS possible to make a story better, and I know myself well enough to know I will always push for that, but it's sometimes better to say "this is done, I'll do even better with the next book".