So you’ve been writing for a while, tilling the soil of your experience and imagination, nurturing a tender little shoot of literary life, and at last your efforts have borne fruit—a completed manuscript. But how do you tell if your little book-fruit is ripe and ready for consumption? Only you can decide for sure, but like a lot of actual fruit, if you poke and prod and sniff at it a bit, your book may offer some indicators that it’s ready—or not.
Your manuscript may not be ready for publication if:
- It’s not actually finished. You may have heard of fellow authors being offered contracts on the strength of just a few sample chapters. This does happen—but usually only for nonfiction. (I have known of partial fiction manuscripts being signed, but in all of those cases, the author was already well known to the publisher that offered the contract.) If you are a first-time novelist, you’d better have your entire book done. Yes, some agents and publishers will only want you to submit a few chapters at first, but you don’t want to be caught empty-handed if they request the full manuscript! And you nonfiction authors aren’t entirely off the hook—in addition to three to five sample chapters (fiftyish pages), you’ll want to have a full outline with chapter summaries ready, to show that you know where your book is going.
- You’ve only written one draft. Congratulations on finishing your first draft! Seriously, that’s a huge accomplishment. Serve yourself a nice big bowl of your favorite ice cream and put an extra cherry on top. Buy yourself something pretty. Get on the horn and brag to your mom. But don’t start sending your book out to agents and publishers. I read a lot of manuscript proposals for my job, and I can tell if you’ve sent me your first draft. And it kind of hurts my feelings, because you obviously didn’t respect me and my time enough to give it at least a once over and fix that big, fat, glaring zit of a typo on the very first page. Show some love to editors everywhere and revise!
- You’re the only one who has read it. I know. You’ve opened your veins and bled your heart’s blood out onto that page. It’s the product of the best and deepest and most authentic parts of you all mixed together in a delicate rainbow of vulnerability. The idea of another human being reading it makes you want to hide under a mound of pillows in a secret underground bunker. But. You know that word publication? How it has the word PUBLIC in it? If you want your book to be published, if you want to hold it in your hands and stroke its cover and smell it (and you know you do), people are gonna read it. And some of them will review it on the Internet. And some of them might even say mean things about it. If you’re not ready for that, your book is not ready to be published.
- You’re the only one who has read it. Yes, I’m writing this twice. Maybe you read the previous paragraph and thought, “So not me—I’m ready to show this masterpiece to the world!” Well, before you show it to the world, show it to a few people who know good writing. The fact is that even if you’re on draft number 2,783, there is probably only so much you can do to make your writing better. We all have blind spots when it comes to our own work. Seeking out helpful, knowledgeable critique can be a game-changer for your writing. Where do you find helpful, knowledgeable critique? Writers groups can be great for this, especially if you feel nervous about getting feedback—they exist to help their members improve their writing, and it’s a level playing field since everyone gives and receives critique. Another option is to hire an editor to evaluate your work. If you decide to go that route, make sure you find an editor with experience in your category and genre. People who care more about your feelings than telling you the truth about your writing do not count as helpful, knowledgeable critiquers. This includes most of the people closest to you. That’s because their job is to love you, not to make your writing better.
- The whole world has read it. If your manuscript consists largely of your most popular blog posts or fiction that you’ve already published online, your book is not ready for a traditional publisher. To borrow one of Grandma’s favorite sayings, why buy the cow if you’re giving the milk away for free? That doesn’t mean your online work can’t be the basis for a fantastic book, but you’re going to have to get really clear on what the book will offer that makes it worth the purchase price.
- You have no idea who your audience is. “Oh, but I really just wrote this for myself.” There’s that pesky PUBLIC-ation again. Something you wrote just for yourself is called a diary. A book is for other people. You should know who those people are and make sure that you truly have written for them. You may think you’ve written the next Pat the Bunny, but if your manuscript is full of 18-letter words and abstract concepts, chances are, you’re incorrect.
Any of this sound familiar? No worries—it just means you have a bit more work to do. Publication isn’t a race. The number-one reason I recommend against accepting a manuscript for publication is that it’s simply not ready. Don’t let that happen to you!