Monday, January 25, 2016

A Manuscript Checkup: Are You Really Ready to Query?


I sometimes hear of querying authors lamenting the decline of “editorial” agents. In truth, all agents are editors of their projects. It just depends on where along a manuscript’s evolution do they want to jump in. What these authors aren’t realizing is that they might be looking for representation too early in their writing process. Most agents look for a project in its later stages or last stage of development. And the reason is simple and practical. The sooner an agent can get a project in front of editors, the sooner (hopefully) he can see a paycheck. If he’s very lucky, he might find a project that only needs one round of editing, but most likely, that one round of editing will uncover the need to do more.


I’ve been working on a client’s book project for over the last month. This is my third time going through the manuscript for this editing round. I’m fairly sure this is either my fifth or sixth time reading the novel. One thing is certain, though. I loved this story the first time I read it, and I love it more now. It’s true that with each edit and revision, the manuscript improves. But it’s more than that. While I could see issues when I first read the story, I could also clearly see solutions. And now that the changes are on the page, the story is better than I first imagined it could be.  


Often I'll get submissions that are so early in their development that I cannot even begin to unravel their issues, much less envision solutions. Those novels, while "completed," are not "market-ready.” Occasionally, time permitting, I’m able to send feedback. When I do, I am struck by how often the same recommendations come up.


Even after countless rejections, some authors may still find it easier to keep querying and keep submitting rather than go back into their novels to fix what is not working. Often it’s because they’re too close to the work and can no longer see problems in it. Some do see or sense there are issues but are unable to pinpoint them or don’t know how to solve them, or where to start.


I have put together some questions that you can use as a checklist to see if you should start or keep querying, or use them to jumpstart your next revision:
  1. Are the stakes clearly defined within the first few paragraphs, or at least within the first chapter?
  2. Are the scenes grounded with specific and unique details that make them tangible and immersive?
  3. Do the main characters have inner lives with complex thoughts, reflections, memories, etc.? Even if they do not reveal their fears, faults and vulnerabilities to the outside world, do they let us in to see them?
  4. Do we have context to the main character(s) emotional journey? Is there a personal journey at all?
  5. Can we clearly envision distinct physical features of the characters that also reveal their unique personalities (or do we only see their hair and eyes)?
If you have answered “no” to any of the above questions, then this could be why you are receiving rejections or no responses at all.


Keep going through your manuscript, asking the next questions:
  1. Is there an over-reliance or repetition of facial movement or expressions to portray emotions, such as “sighing,” “grimacing,” “groaning,” and “cringing”?
  2. Are there large blocks of dialogue where nothing else is happening in the scene, or it is unclear what the characters are physically doing during the conversation?
  3. Is there a lot of expository information (explanation of background, characters,  ground situation, etc.) revealed through dialogue?
  4. Are there words, phrases, gestures, physical sensations that are used commonly or repetitively (such as “heart pounding” or “pulse racing”)?
  5. Is there filtering language? (for example, a character sees something happening rather it just happens on the page, or rather than saying the thought, the character’s “sees it through his mind’s eye”)
If you have answered "yes" to any of these last questions, it appears, you have some work ahead of you.


Hopefully by going through these questions, you'll have a better perspective on your manuscript, and be in a better place to decide whether or not you should keep querying or look at revising. These questions also aim to provoke ideas on ways to tell your story better, so that the next time you query, there’ll be an agent or editor who not only falls in love with it, she’ll love it more each time she reads it.


25 comments:

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  2. Wow, this is one of the best and most comprehensive editing checklists I've ever seen. Thank you, thank you.

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    1. I'm so glad to hear that. You're very welcome.

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  3. Great list! Thank you for taking the time to share this.

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    1. I'm glad you liked it - hope it's helpful.

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  4. I love this check-list. I've felt the same issues where I knew what was wrong, but didn't understand and couldn't pinpoint what the problem was. I actually had Margaret read through my ms and she was able to explain the inner lives part that I was missing. This check-list is great. I will be using this as a reference.

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    1. Thank you Niki! Great to hear it will be useful for your writing process.

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  5. This is incredibly useful, as always. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you so much Maureen for your kind words.

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  6. Right on time, thank you Lisa! I needed this. I am furiously making the final edits to pitch my Southern Fantasy at the Atlanta Writing Workshop on February 20th. Your questions helped me see that (after some great beta-input) BLESSED is ready. Or will be by the 20th. Woohoo!

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    1. That's awesome Olivia! I'm so glad it was helpful. I say, give me a deadline and I'll give you a writer. (Me included.) Best of luck to you!

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  7. Thank you Lisa for the questions! My daughter and I have almost finished our editing of our second book and having these questions are a big deal for us to use. We have had a couple of people read it to see if they like it and we were thrilled at their response. This success will allow us to finish the editing by the first of the month so we can begin sending it out to find an agent and a publisher. Thank you again so much!

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    1. You are very welcome! Great to hear they were so helpful in your editing process.

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  9. Great checklist of potential pitfalls. I finished the fourth revision of my first novel, and after exhausting my resources of editing advise from professionals and fellow writers, I'm ready to query. Or so I thought until I read your blog! One last test to pass before I sacrifice my baby to an agent's alter. Let's see if I make the cut!

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  10. This is extremely helpful. Thanks so much!

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  11. This is an eye opening checklist, thank you for posting, Lisa! With that being said, I won't be sending you my #Adpit submission (that you favored) just yet- until I check back over this list carefully because I'd rather be 100% sure it's ready. Thanks so much!
    Kelley Griffin (KT Griffin)

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  12. PS The checklists are so good that I've shared this article here and there and the feedback has been very, very positive. Talk about covering all bases! Thank you.

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  13. I'm going to post this on the PitchWars hashtag.

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