June 22, 2003

You finished your novel! Now what?

A first time novelist asked me what to do now that she was finished writing her novel. Here's my answer.

You finished a novel? YEAH YOU!

First things first. Stephen King recommends a 'cool down' period where you put away the manuscript and wait so when you take it out, you can see the flaws better. When you get to Stephen King's level of writing, the drawer is a good place to put it, but I recommend first readers and critque groups. If you don't have any, www.critters.org and www.hollylisle.com are two places where you can meet people that are willing to look at full novels...usually at the price at looking at theirs! Reading other people's stuff can help in seeing what you're doing wrong and right.

Take anything said to you with a grain of salt (including my instructions here.) Actually maybe a truck load of salt. I have levels of first readers, some I just nodded and smile to. I'm listening for "I didn't understand" or "I got confused" or "this didn't make sense." Other first readers I'm willing to totally rewrite endings for, but the trust in them has been built up over the years.

Editors want a first novel to be as perfect as you can get it, because if you turn in a flawed novel, they don't know if you can revise, which is a totally different skill, to fix it. Some writers when you tell them to revise a manuscript will throw out the old and merely write new rough draft, which isn't the same as skillfully inserting a scattering of sentences here and there that redefines the novel. So this step is very important for a first novel. It's unlikely you'll get a 'this was good up to the end, fix the end and we'll talk' letter. It might happen, but its better to fix the end now.

Take in account the emotional battering you're about to enter into. Months of hearing nothing and then a form letter. Many first time novelist lose it here and never write again. Give your first novel every chance it can get to win -- and then let it go. Move on to the next project.

Okay, you've got the novel polished. Yeah you!

Research on how to write query letters and sypnosis. Here's a great link:


This is a secret writer skill that no one talks about. You MUST learn how to do this because every book you will sell for a long time will need to have one. You editor needs one to go to her boss and say "I love this novel, I want to buy it, here's a synopsis for it." The synopsis might also go to the artist who does the cover art. I took a month to write the one for ALIEN TASTE but I got excessive.

I've talked to lots of editors and agents and they have different answers on length of the synposis. I've been told anything from two pages to ten. Most people agree that they want something that shows the full story arc with enough detail to show that you've actually had the ending figured out and it makes sense and the action flows in a logical order to that end.

Query letters can also be cover letters, depending on how much you fire off. The query letter can go out alone, with a synopsis, or -- with the line "can I send you more" changed to "please find enclosed the entire manuscript" -- act as a cover letter. Take time to write a nice one for your manuscript.

Query letters start out with

Dear (editor's, agent's name)

I have finished (genre) novel of xxx,xxxx words.

One or two paragraphs describing the novel. Query letters should only be one page long (they'll read the synopsis if they want more). Yes, it's hard to sum up 100,000 in two paragraphs, but if your novel sells, you'll have to repeat this short blurb for the rest of your life to your family, friends, kid's teachers, barber, butcher...you get the idea.

If you have any publishing credits, its a good idea to squeeze them in here. ALIEN TASTE was the first thing I sold, so I just skipped this part. When you're completely new, its better to say nothing than admit it. If you have some kind of special skill, like marine biologist for a novel set under water, or work for NASA, or a Doctor in mideval history, you can mention it here too.

Query letter alone: Can I send you a partial submission or the full manuscript? Query letter with partial: Can I send you more? Cover letter with full manscript: I hope you like this.


The great thing about query letters and agents is that you can send out letters to 100 agents and let them decide if they might be interested in your project. I sent out 50 and got six positive responses of "please send more." The agent that I wanted asked for the full manscript and exclusive rights, which meant that when another agent CALLED the next day, I had to ask them to wait until the first agent decided. As it was, the first agent accepted me.

Of course, I also had to deal with 30 some letters coming back rubber stamped with "this does not suit our needs at this time." If I hadn't had any positive responses, I would have rewritten my query letter -- obviously something was wrong with it! ;-)

Unfortunately, you can't do the same with publishers. They're a one at a time thing.

But the most important thing you can do at this point is WRITE ANOTHER NOVEL!!!!

Good luck. Have fun. Don't take any of the rejections personally. Just as every reader won't like every book, no matter how well written, so too editors and agents often turn down well written books that they just don't "like."

Posted by wen at June 22, 2003 11:11 AM