Recently I corresponded with a friend who is writing her first novel. She’s young (mid-twenties), highly accomplished, and about to travel from urban America to its wild hinterlands for a summer job. She had questions about writing, editing, and publishing. Because these are questions that many people starting out as writers are likely to have, I’m posting her queries (paraphrased to protect her and her hatchling book) and my answers.
(Note that my answers are geared for someone who wants to send her work to publishers rather than to self-publish, and who doesn’t have a lot of spare cash to hire freelance editors.)
When you first started, how did you find an editor? Did you participate in a writing group? Since I move around quite a bit these days, I’m not sure how to go about finding a class or critiquing partner / group. At what point in your process did you decide to start looking for an agent? Did you send a completed manuscript to potential agents?
“How exciting that you’re working on a novel! I hope the writing is going well, and that you’re enjoying it (at least when it isn’t driving you crazy).
As for publishing: the number one thing is to write an awesome book. Before you even consider sending material to agents, finish the novel, revise it, edit it, find a critique partner or an online writing group, and polish it up till it shines. (When I first attempted a novel, I made the mistake of contacting agents when I only had a few chapters written. D’oh… for first time novelists, publishing professionals want to see a completed work.) Focus on the book!
I was lucky enough to find a writing group, and I heartily recommend it. I know it’s tricky if you’re moving around. Writer’s Digest might have links to online groups. I don’t recommend posting material on random blogs or message boards for critique — unless you know the blogger, or the board has prerequisites, you have no idea of the qualifications of the people who are commenting. If you have a well-educated friend who loves books and writing and is willing to take a look at your material, that would be better.
Here’s the important thing: a critique partner or beta reader should focus on the big things — the story, the characters, pacing, dialogue — and tell you what works, where things slow down or don’t make sense, rather than just proofreading or copyediting the text. Otherwise, you can end up with polished, grammatically perfect sentences in a draft that falls flat. BIG PICTURE FIRST.
It’s not necessary to hire an editor to work on your novel before you send it out to agents and publishers. Besides, that can become expensive very quickly (from hundreds to thousands of dollars). I know some good freelance editors but I don’t suggest that you go that route. It might be worth your while at some point to go to a writers’ conference — you might get advice and inspiration, and meet other writers who would be interested in forming a critique partnership.
Publication: Most publishers want submissions to come through an agent. (Some small presses take submissions directly.) Initially, you’ll send queries to agents — a 250 word email or letter that entices them to request pages from your novel. Almost never will you simply send a full manuscript to an agent unsolicited. Nowadays most agents and literary agencies have submission guidelines online. Some will ask for a query alone; some will ask for a query plus the first ten pages, or the first three chapters, or pages plus a synopsis. For an understanding of what goes into a good query letter, check out Query Shark, which is run by agent Janet Reid.
From the description of your novel, a comparable title is [redacted so as not to give away the plot]. Take a look at it to see how the novel handles the topic your book tackles, and how the author develops the characters and creates dramatic suspense from that starting point.
In summary: there’s a lot of work ahead, but it is totally worth it. I think there’s nothing more awesome. Good luck! Keep at it!”