Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Should I finish the manuscript of my novel before submitting to agents?

Question: I am currently working on a novel that I believe is very unique in the murder/mystery genre. My work is about 10,000 words currently, headed for about 110,000-120,000. Would an agent take me on at this stage of the game or do I need a completed work?

A good question. If you’ve written a novel, never query an agent unless your manuscript is finished and in its absolute final draft. Ideally, this final draft has not only been revised dozens of times over several months, but has also taken into account feedback from trusted, impartial readers. Your querying an agent should not be viewed as an opportunity to enter into a back and forth. Is not a dialogue: it is a one way conversation. You are requesting representation and he is responding Yes or No.

In rare cases an agent may be intrigued enough by your work to request a revision. But in the vast majority of cases, this will not happen. If an agent does not like your work, he will not ask you to revise, or be willing to read another draft. Thus your approach is your one and only shot, and it must represent the final, best work you have to offer.

That said, there are always exceptions. There have been instances in my career when I’ve sold a partial fiction manuscript for a very significant advance. In such cases, though, these partials will often comprise at least 200 or 300 pages, include a detailed synopsis for the remainder of the book, and will have been written by authors who have already published several novels with major houses. Even then, I do not advise your stopping at page 200 or 300 for a submission’s sake. If you can write 300 pages, you can write 400, and it’s always best to have the finished manuscript in hand beforehand.

When it comes to non-fiction, though, the requirements are different: you always approach with an unfinished work. The vast majority of non-fiction is sold based upon a professional non-fiction book proposal, which comprises but one or two sample chapters and rarely exceeds 40 or 50 pages. (I discuss this topic at length in my book How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent.) If you are unable to find representation, or if your agent is unable to land you a deal, then you would have wasted your time writing the entire manuscript in advance. But just because you are dealing with 40 or 50 pages, don’t think a first draft will suffice: as with fiction, these pages must be in the best possible shape.

This all points to a broader issue. In general, there is a stark difference in the publishing industry between fiction and non-fiction: many editors, for example, are only allowed by their publisher to acquire either fiction or non-fiction, and many publishers and imprints will publish either fiction or non-fiction. Editors of non-fiction tend to lunch with agents of non-fiction, and the same holds true with fiction. There are circles within circles in the publishing industry. You, as the author, must realize there is a stark divide, and never assume that the same rules that apply to fiction also apply to non-fiction. The more you pay attention to the detailed, specific rules which apply to each genre, the greater the likelihood of your landing a deal.


  1. Mr. Lukeman, Your book "The First Five Pages" is great. After reading it, I had the confidence to join an online writers workshop, which is fueling my dreams of getting published. My husband is not a writer, but we were sitting in the hospital waiting room while our son had tubes put in his ears, and I'd say "listen to this stilted dialogue" and he loved it, too. Thanks for the guidance!

  2. Noah, I took an on-line class with you a couple of years ago that I loved. I'm so happy to see your blog! I'll be following closely. Thanks for all the great information and insights your provide.


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