Is your project ready to submit?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Recently I received two queries that I thought held promise. So I asked to see the proposals and first chapters. On close inspection, I found both projects weren’t ready to be submitted. As I list the issues I observed, use my  concerns as a checklist for your next project, whether you’re submitting to an agent, an editor, or in fulfillment of a current contract.

Lacking in focus. Both projects–which were narrative nonfiction–were like rudderless boats. The writers were clacking away on their computer keys but hadn’t taken the time to ask:

What’s the best structure for my manuscript?

Will this structure make sense to a reader and enable the reader to easily move through my material?maze

What do I want my reader to take away from my manuscript? (Now there’s an important question neither writer could answer!)

Missing an emotional connection with readers. Part of engaging the reader is putting him or her into your material through vivid description of the setting, of the “characters” surrounding you, and how you responded emotionally to events. Or, in the case of fiction, making your protagonist sympathetic but not weak. Even a book on how to create relationships with neighbors benefits from your telling the reader about the day you decided to invest yourself in a neighbor’s life. What drove you to that decision? What had kept you from going there before? Were you nervous? How did your neighbor respond? Once the reader has connected with how you (or your protagonist) felt, the reader is hooked on reading further.

Didn’t understand the manuscript’s category. Book categories exist for a reason. They communicate to the reader what to expect from books in that genre. Readers have unspoken expectations when they are told a book fits in a certain category. When they buy a romantic suspense, they expect the book to have strong suspense elements and a romance woven throughout the plot. If the romance isn’t strong enough or if the suspense is developed insufficiently, the reader will be disappointed.

If the writer hasn’t read widely in his or her chosen category and studied what characteristics are true about it, how will the writer create a manuscript that meets expectations?

Give credence to any feedback you receive. Don’t dismiss advice that is hurtful or seems downright off-base. Look carefully to see if some gem of helpful insight is tucked into the comments. And consider the source. If an agent or editor offers you reasons for a rejection, remember that a professional evaluator–who has picked sufficient winners in the past to make a living at this–is the source.

Don’t rush to submit. I tell my clients over and over again, until I’m sure they roll their eyes, that a manuscript only has one chance to get a yes from an agent or an editor. It’s the rare project that will get a second look. Just because you’ve written the first three chapters–or even the entire manuscript–doesn’t mean it’s ready to submit. Impatience is a writer’s worst enemy. Resist the urge to give in to the need to submit until you’re confident your project is ready.

Make sure you, the writer, is prepared to submit. Sometimes, especially when a writer is telling his or her anguished story in the form of narrative nonfiction, memoir, or even a fictionalized version, the manuscript might be publishable, but the author isn’t ready. You might need only to write your story for your own benefit, as part of processing your experience. Or you might need to wait to submit your work until you’re emotionally strong enough to handle the editing process (which can be brutal sometimes) and giving interviews.

When I wrote my first book manuscript, an editor at HarperCollins read it and liked it but said to me, “You probably can find a publisher for this book, but I encourage you not to submit it to anyone else. If you wait a few years, you’ll write a very different book. A better book.”

I thought his advice was gobbledygook. If the manuscript was publishable, why wait? I didn’t. Looking back, I now understand what that editor meant. I could have given the world a better book.

Looking back, do you recognize times you submitted a project prematurely? What was the outcome? Do you have regrets?

What techniques do you use to know when your project is ready to submit?

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44 Comments

  • Once again, Janet, your advice applies more widely than just the topic at hand. I’ve learned that even the harshest criticism includes some useful information; “some gem of helpful insight” is an apt description. At first, the comment feels like garbage, but when I sort it out I discover some weakness in my logic or presentation. Thank you for your wise advice on writing–and life.

  • Great advice, Janet. I have purposely not submitted to anyone yet because I knew my first stories weren’t ready. When I submit, I hope to make a good first impression. I understand the yearning to submit early—that desire to move forward on the publication journey, friends have submitted and received representation, the praise and feel-good affirmations that come from taking that step forward and being well received all spur me on to submit. But, knowing I need to make that submission really count keeps me waiting till I know my story-and I—am ready for representation.

    Ultimately, God knows the right timing for me to take that step, and I’m learning to trust His “Not now” and keep working to make my story and myself ready.

    In answer to your second question, I think I’ll know I’m ready when I’ve gone through my MS a number of times, fixing various aspects of it, and when I’ve received solid feedback from critique partners. I’m looking forward to reading about how others know their MS is ready for submission. :)

  • When I first wrote my nonfiction, editing (hacking parts and pieces) would have been emotional brutality. But five years later, I was ready. The harshest critic I know took a look at it, and I was ready to hack. And it didn’t even hurt … it actually felt great. It flowed better. The five year time span enabled me to go from pain to purpose.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, you’ve touched on an important point: giving yourself emotional distance from your manuscript, especially if it was painful to write in the first place.

  • Lack of focus seems to be endemic in a lot of recent narrative nonfiction. It’s as if the authors and editors don’t see that there is a clear story arc in every tale worth telling.

    On rushing to submit…a story may illustrate something.

    When I got a PhD, I felt that it should be my ticket to an academic job – I mean, good, field, good school, good mentor, how could I lose?

    I was told that I needed to work as a postdoc for a few years first, to make a reputation.

    Did I listen? No. I fired off resumes right and left, and the only reputation I made was negative – as someone who was applying before he was ready. There are only so many schools teaching that stuff, and I applied for every opening.

    So I worked as a postdoc, and it was two years before I got an interview, three years before I got a teaching job. My reputation was damaged by my impetuousness, and my career stunted.

    The moral is that industries and institutions are made up of people whom you’ll likely meet more than once…and they remember things.

    A polished, professional, and ‘ready’ submission is the best path to making a positive memory.

  • Jim Lupis says:

    Don’t rush to submit is great advice, especially for me. I always rush in my excitement to send off a manuscript. I always write two manuscripts, the one I just wrote, and the second one that I look at three months later. I never change a word, yet, they are totally different! Thanks, Janet, for the great wake up call.

  • I would keel over and faint if I had to read my early submissions.
    Regrets? Ohhhhh yeah. Pah-lenty.
    But who doesn’t? Oh. Right. Smart people who don’t submit dreck.

    Before submitting, I had my writer peeps go over every word of my query and sample chapters. It was far better to have them red line stuff than have a prospective agent smirk and hit the delete button.

    Now I’m in the process of refining the MS before my agent sends it out. And as hard as patience is, it’s easier than blowing things at a pub house by submitting a not-good-enough book.

  • I love reading great advice like this from an agent’s perspective. Thanks for this post!

    I’m one who appreciates feedback about my MS even though, yes, it can be very hard to hear. Inevitably, as I begin to read a critique, my stomach ties in knots. I do feel that my work almost always benefits from a good critique, though.

    I can also relate to the writer’s urge to submit work before it’s ready. There comes a point when you’re just SO ready to be done with it and start something else! I’ve seen many novels that were published too soon though, and they serve as reminders that it’s better to take the time to make your book just right.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I often think about an old ad slogan, “No wine before it’s time.” It doesn’t matter our great the grape is, without the right blending and then the aging, a young wine can’t compare to an aged wine.Since I live in Wine Country I’ve sampled newly-harvested wine, bought a bottle and then drunk it when it was at its peak. Oh, my. How sad to have consumed it too soon.

      • Judy Gann says:

        Janet, the ad slogan reminds me of Karen Ball’s wise words:

        “Send no proposal before its time.”

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Wise words Janet. Thank you so much for laying out the reasons you rejected these projects for the rest of us who are sitting behind our computers staring at our book proposals and wondering…are they ready? This is a very helpful check list that can actually give a writer something substantial to look at rather than fret, close our eyes, and click send.

  • I’m embarrassed to say I submitted too early. Excitement over interest in my manuscript nipped at my heels and I launched it before the wrinkles were completely smoothed out. All that to say, it’s been humbling in a good way (especially when an agent gave suggestions of ways to improve over the phone), and I’m learning how to better apply those instructions with the help of my CP. Attending Mount Hermon this year is another surefire way to hone my craft. See you there Janet!

    On a past blog post in this community I remember published authors sharing how many manuscripts they completed before getting published. It was eye opening to realize that we all have a unique learning curve. Commitment to the long haul process is crucial.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jenni, it’s especially hard to attend a writers conference, receive requests to see your project–and then to have it turned down because it wasn’t ready. One of the aspects of Mount Hermon that I love is that, at the beginning of the conference, attendees can’t wait to talk to an agent about their projects. As the conference continues, they receive some feedback, meet with the critique team, and discover that manuscript wasn’t as ready as they had thought. That’s when attendees drift away from the agents and hang out with the critiquers because they’ve discovered they need to learn a lot more. That’s what I call a very helpful process!

    • Have a great time at Mt. Hermon, Jenni! I wish I was going. :)

  • Angela Mills says:

    I am struggling with this very thing right now. I’m preparing to submit at a conference, because I feel like it would be a missed opportunity if I don’t. I hope I’m truly ready and not rushing because of the conference, but I also know that I could tweak for months and not feel ready, so at some point I just have to jump in. If it turns out to be too early, I’ll just have to rework it and try again!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      You’ll be able to gauge whether your idea resonates with agents and editors at the conference, and that alone is worthwhile. If you are attending a conference with pros who are critiquing, I’d suggest you get feedback from them as well. If they love your manuscript and only have minor suggestions, you’re probably good to go in submitting the project. If not, they’ll provide you with good direction. Blessings on you at the conference!

      • Angela Mills says:

        Thanks! Great advice! I’m going to Mount Hermon and I was going to send my proposal in for a pre-conference submission to an agent, but I think I will wait until I get it critiqued and take some workshops.

        Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to submit towards the end of the conference, but if not, I’d rather miss the in-person opportunity and pitch by email when it’s polished and ready than pitch too early and regret it. This post caught me just in time, I was mailing my submission today and I really feel I should wait. Thank you!

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Angela, you could put together a one-page, concise summary of your project, with title and subtitle (if applicable) as well as your bio with your pic. That way you would have something to hand to any editors or agents you meet with. It helps as a springboard to talk about the project. Don’t hesitate to pitch your project; you can always send the proposal after the conference to anyone interested, and you’ll have time to massage the proposal based on what you learn at the conference. This is a low risk way to go.

      • Angela Mills says:

        Thank you!! I actually made a one sheet and I didn’t really know if/when I’d use it. That is the perfect solution. Thanks for giving all this advice, I so appreciate it :)

  • Janet, this was such a timely post!

    I have agonized over a manuscript I’ve been working on the last year. I wanted this to be finished 9 months ago. Four drafts later, I’m still working. But in the wait and the work I see the blessing – the manuscript is so much better now than it was 9 months ago, or even 6 months ago. This is not the same book I thought I was writing when I presented the concept at a writer’s conference last April. It’s better.

    I hope it will be ready soon. I’m working hard to ensure that every word, every sentence, every chapter is laser focused on a single theme, all are working together to lead the reader to that final conclusion in such a way that the joy is in the journey.

    Perhaps the greatest shift in the course of the last year is that this book – memoir – is no longer for me or about me – it’s a journey I’m inviting someone else to take with me. A rookie epiphany, I’m certain, but an important one nonetheless.

    Thanks for the reminder that my manuscript will be ready when it’s ready and not a moment sooner. Just like brownies.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Adelle, I remember seeing your project at Mount Hermon last year and noting it was a kingdom divided–two perfectly great ideas that didn’t fit together. I’m so thankful you’ve worked diligently to separate the two, to decide what you needed to write,and to pursue getting as close to perfection as possible. I’ve learned that, when I read a manuscript I’ve written and find myself surprised by how really fine sections of it are, that it’s close to being ready. Sounds like you’re honing in on that place. Congratulations.

  • Thanks for this excellent and important reminder not to act with haste and repent in leisure. My first completed novel is also my testament of God’s work in my career. A women’s fiction novel that I collaborated on with my older sister, we were eager to get it out there. I sent it to a beta reader and edited it based upon her feedback. Then I started researching potential agents. My sister moved out of state and communicating on the project got harder and harder with her busy schedule. When I sat down to work on it again, I realized how much work remained, despite the editing. Just that short delay allowed me the time to look at the project with fresh, more critical, eyes. It’s probably one of those books that will remain in my filing cabinet and not see the light of day. I’m sure God had His hand in it all.

    With all my projects now, I run them through my critique group and edit, and then off to a beta reader before I think of sending them out into the world. Praying along the way certainly helps keep me focused.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, those to-be-filed-forever manuscripts are hard. But most authors have at least one if not several of that sort. It’s a learning process, and writing is complex–if not, everyone would do it. No, wait, everyone IS doing it, quite without reflection. I certainly don’t want to be in that category, and clearly you don’t either.

  • JJ Landis says:

    I am finding it hard to move on to a new project while my first manuscript sits unpublished. I’ve submitted it in all kinds of disrepair and then cleaned it up and submitted it some more and then still found things to change. Each time, I’m embarrassed I let anyone see it.

    The story (memoir) matures with each draft. Must have patience!

    Stubborn optimism keeps me going. Some day…

  • I submitted my first manuscript to editors and agents at the first conference I attended. Then I took classes at the same conference, and wished I had waited based on what I learned. One of the agents I targeted met with me several times during that conference, but in the end decided what I already knew in my heart: the manuscript was not ready. HOWEVER, the next year at the same conference, we met again, she signed me and the book was published. :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Barbara, what a great example of how, by making that strong connection with an agent, you had the opportunity to reconnect when the manuscript was ready. Obviously the agent liked you and your manuscript well enough to take a second look. Yeah!

  • Becky Jones says:

    I think there are a few ways to know you’re ready:

    * your husband keeps asking if that thing is ready to submit alread (because, bless his heart, he herds the kiddo(s) in the mornings while you edit);
    * if it’s memoir, you’ve had time to grow up and through the ordeal that shapes your writing, and you plan to delive those hard-learned pearls to your reader;
    * you’ve read your genre, honed a distinct voice that will, hopefully, become your brand; and of course, the most important:
    * your next book idea has come you, miraculously, in the shower. And that means you’ve gotta move inventory! ;)

  • Elaine Manders says:

    This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read and affirms what I’ve always thought. There are too many books being published prematurely. I’ve written several manuscripts but none are quite ready yet. Every time I’m tempted to submit I remember you only have one first book and your reputation will depend on it.

  • Roger H Panton says:

    I am almost at the pint of submitting, nearly two months after I paid the self-publishing Company because I decided to do a further editing following comments from a friend. I am really happy I did not submit then.

  • Marti Pieper says:

    So true. So helpful And such strong validation for advice I gave a writer friend about her proposal last week. Thanks for putting this into words.

  • Katie Robles says:

    I’m in the process of editing my novel and I’ve been struggling to be patient and get it “right” before I give it to my agent. This was a good reminder to take my time; thank you.

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