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I am just about finished with the first draft of a novel I've been working on. I've been writing novels for about ten years and I've self-published a couple, but I'm looking to peek into the world of "real" publishing. I've been struggling to find resources about how this process should actually work. I didn't study anything related to creative writing or even writing at all in college (beyond my gen ed requirements) and my "normal" job isn't at all related -- this has just been a longtime passion/hobby of mine.

So, my question is: how much editing should I realistically do before I start sending in query letters? I know it would be helpful to have beta readers or anyone to give advice, but unfortunately no one I know has time for that! Supposing I finish my draft by the 15th I'll have written about 100k words in 2.5 months, so fairly quick but nothing crazy. I'm planning to do a full pass through after that, catch the smaller errors and also take detailed notes on the structure so I can tackle it more thoroughly moving forward.

But how many drafts should I get in before I start seeking advice for publication? My dilemma here is this: When I self-published, I was pretty lax about editing. I didn't want to put a ton of time and energy into a technically perfect piece when I was mainly just writing it for myself and a small audience (those projects weren't taken very seriously, but I'm still proud of them). I had some amateur friends give them a read, but for the most part it was all me.

I'd rather not spend a year of my free-time-life editing something and THEN get mountains upon mountains of rejection letters, if that makes sense. I'd rather know now if I have a chance of publishing professionally -- becoming a NYT bestselling author isn't the goal, just getting a book on the bookshelf and going through the process been a dream of mine since childhood -- but like I said, I have no clue how this process should work!

Basically, any guidance as to how I should approach my editing and promotion after finishing a first draft would be GREATLY appreciated.

Sorry if I was a bit rambly and disorganized with all that... I should really be asleep but I was up late writing. Again. Surprise! Anyway -- thanks, all, in advance!!

  • Have you self published your work online? It might help if you make a small name for yourself there first because if a publisher looks you up they could see if you already have a small fan base and see some good opinions of your work. – LateralTerminal Jan 12 '18 at 15:19
  • I have self published on CreateSpace and Amazon, but haven't self-promoted really at all; my fan base outside people I know is limited to the occasional random buyer (there are a few people on Goodreads who have reviewed and/or rated and it's exciting because I HAVE NO IDEA WHO THEY ARE AND THEY READ MY BOOK!). But essentially, no -- unless you count the slightly viral Twilight parody I wrote and posted online when I was 14. – Marie Jan 12 '18 at 19:18
  • This might sound weird but I suggest you get serious about self promotion. Mock up some advertisements for your previous book. Make a few simple, clean, professional looking YouTube videos that advertise your previous books. When someone searches your pen name they will see a lot more results on different platforms. Anything that you can do to stand out from someone who doesn't have any self advertising. – LateralTerminal Jan 12 '18 at 19:22
  • try to get your own basic graphic design and motion graphic skills if you can too. Although the phrase is never judge a book by its cover... Everyone actually judges a book by its cover. Anything you can do to stand out from the competition. Take control over all the marketing and get serious about researching marketing and psychology. Make people want your stuff on a subconscious level. – LateralTerminal Jan 12 '18 at 19:25
  • Thanks. That's really good advice. I do have some amateur experience with graphic design and video production so I think it's doable, so long as I get serious about it. It'll be an issue of faking it till I make it, I think. – Marie Jan 12 '18 at 19:27
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Competition among writers today is extreme. Every agency and publisher gets hundreds, if not thousands of submissions each month. At the same time, the publishing market is under increasing pressure from competing media such as television and computer games and from monopolist retailers such as Amazon. Because of that, publishers and agents no longer have the financial leeway to invest much work into polishing an unfinished manuscript.

Agents I have spoken to have repeatedly emphasized that they expect finished manuscripts. They will help you with some fine-tuning, but basically the plot should work, the characters should be well-rounded, style, grammar, and orthography should be free of mistakes – and the first few paragraphs of your text must grab the attention of your target audience.

The only exception to this expectation is if you are a celebrity and a high number of sales can be expected from your name alone. In that case, you don't have to have anything written at all – the agency will find a ghost writer for you, if you need one. In all other cases: Your book must be publication-ready when you submit it.

And even then there is a high likelyhood, if you are submitting your first novel, that the publisher or agency will request that you write another book. More often than not have aspiring writers reported that agencies replied that their first book was "good" but not publishable (as there was no market for it) and have asked them whether they have an idea for another book. So your first (publication-ready) book will in many cases be nothing more than an entrance examination that shows publishers what you are capable of, after which they begin to work with you to develop the book they want you to write and then publish.

The qualities that will most help you in becoming a published author are stamina, perseverance, and tenacity. Writing is an endurance sport. Good luck!

  • Thank you! This is exactly the information I need. If that's the way it is, I will put my effort into making it as polished as I can. I have the technical skill to do so, but I worry about whether only my reading it will blind me to plot holes and inconsistencies. I guess I will focus on finding (and possibly bribing) a group to give feedback? It's funny that people think just writing a novel is impressive... the revision process is 10x harder! – Marie Jan 12 '18 at 19:15
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This is a Buyer's Market.

+1 'Friday Night in Frankfurt'. If you send query letters and they respond, you do not have long to send in a manuscript, you are going to leave yourself with about a week to edit, pack and ship before they become disinterested.

Metaphorically speaking my father would say, "you're not the pretty girl in this situation, you're the pimple-faced boy that would do anything for the pretty girl to just give him a kind word and notice he exists."

In other words the pretty girls are the publishers and have all the power, you are the supplicant that they can ignore without any consequence, dismiss you if you make one wrong step, and even if they do take you by the hand, will expect you to make changes to meet their expectations.

Get out of the mindset that you get to do things your way, that any publisher will deal with you like you were special: In their eyes you have a major deficit to begin with: You are unknown. You have no fan base that is going to buy your books in any significant number.

You don't get to be a prima donna. They are in this to make money, they have literally hundreds of suitors and, like that pretty girl, always twenty or fifty times as many as they could plausibly accept and publish, so they can be as selective as they like.

Suppose you worked for a publisher and you read query letters and sent in manuscripts. You know you will probably average one publication recommendation per month, out of hundreds of query letters, and perhaps ten requested manuscripts.

Then a good query letter intrigues you, and you request a manuscript be sent immediately. It is a week later than you expected. It seems good to start, but you get fifty pages in and it is filled with typos and grammatic errors and clichés, it seems written without care.

Then you [as a reviewer] don't care. Unlike other readers, they will not plow through and hope it gets better, they will cut their losses. The hour they put in was wasted. There are ten other manuscripts to start. They click the box on the screen for Rejection Letter #1, "Thanks but no thanks with no explanation" and put your manuscript in the "Forget it" box. They have work to do.

The solution.

Adopt Stephen King's attitude and advice: If you love to write and want to be an author, then write and be an author, whether published or not. But that will include all your editing and polishing.

Before he was ever published, King says what he wrote was edited, polished, and in his mind perfected and completely done and 'in the drawer' when he began to shop it, after doing the clerk work of query letters and submissions, he began writing the next thing from his mental shelf of ideas, a short story, a book, an article.

If you don't do that, you risk wasting all your work. Your story and plot and characters may very well be original and publishable. And that can suffice for you to overcome the deficit of being an unknown. But if your book, to a professional reader, keeps stopping them with typos, or misplaced quotes, or bad grammar or cliché, they won't finish it to find out.

One final metaphor: Consider your manuscript an application for a very high paying job (even though Kameron Hurley [an often published female scifi author] warns you it may not be). No matter what you want out of it, the publisher wants a best seller, something that earns them much more than the effort they put into it: They want what you want, hundreds or thousands of dollars per hour of work. This doesn't mean they aren't into the art and wonder of imagination and transportive entertainment, but they have to cover their losses (which are frequent) and they run a business that needs to make a profit. So from your point of view, don't go into this high-paying high-stakes high-prestige interview unkempt and unwashed in your threadbare bathrobe, and hope they see a diamond in the rough they can makeover into a star. Finish your manuscript until you truly think there is nothing left to do on it.

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There are some good answers here already, but I wanted to contribute a couple of things based on my experience.

1: The story itself tends to drive it's level of polish.

Let's just admit it, we are all human. We are apex predators genetically programmed to conserve energy when not pursuing a critical task. In other words, we instinctively put in as much work as seems reasonable, but no more. A manuscript needs a hell of a lot of work to become fully polished. 90% of the books that have ever been written were not engaging enough to get all the way to being fully polished because they did not drive their author to do it. So if your book won't leave you alone, and you feel as if you owe it, as if you would be letting it down if you didn't polish it, then you know you have a book strong enough to be published. You will share it with people, you will receive feedback, you will read it aloud (read it aloud!!!) because all of that will organically come from what a powerful and compelling story it is.

2: Don't just submit to agents.

It is exactly the same amount of work and same kind of work to submit to agents as publishers. In today's world, there is precious little information that cannot be gained by a smart person willing to do research (stackexchange anyone?), and there is less and less of a good reason for agents to hold their mystery-religion sway over writers. Many publishers do not accept unagented submissions, but some do. Those that do are hungry and have not built out a stable of cash cow books, and are willing to throw a few more at the wall to see what sticks. An agent can be compared to a real estate agent: if you can't sell your house alone, they are probably necessary, but if you have a buyer in hand, why bring one in just to give them a cut? I sold my last book myself without any help from an agent, and I have found that the publishers who are willing to look at unagented submissions tend to have much better response times than most agents do anyway.

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    I'm a bit iffy on the second part of this. I sold my previous book directly to a good publisher, without an agent, and while if felt like a good idea at the time, I've grown to regret it. A good agent isn't just about the first sale, it's about having someone to represent you in the business aspects of publishing. – Chris Sunami Aug 23 '18 at 17:25
  • I'm curious: was it that you felt cut out of the book production or felt that you didn't have enough input without an active author's representative? – JBiggs Aug 23 '18 at 17:39
  • Neither, but it's fifteen years later, and I can't get my rights back, or anyone at the publisher to answer my calls. Plus, I feel there's a lot more I could have done with the book with good representation. Basically 1) it's good to have someone else who is interested in the success of your book besides yourself and 2) it's good to have someone who can focus on the business of publishing so you can focus on the writing. // I've never had an agent, so maybe my picture of it is too rosy, but I do know that 15% sounds like a much better investment than it did 15 years ago. – Chris Sunami Aug 23 '18 at 17:43
  • Interesting. Definitely something to keep in mind. Yeah, it's tough to say. I feel like agents usefulness as publicists is over rated, but I don't have enough information to really say for sure. I do know that juggling more than one book and all the business side of each one, they sound more and more useful. – JBiggs Aug 23 '18 at 17:48
  • @ChrisSunami, one thing I would say though is if the issue is getting your rights back after the end of the contract, I'd reach out to a copyright lawyer, not an agent anyway. – JBiggs Aug 23 '18 at 18:06
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No one WANTS to spend a year editing something and then get a mountain of rejection letters. But it's the people who tackle that head-on who tend to be successful, not the people who look for shortcuts around it. Believe me, I've spent more than enough of my own years looking for other ways to get there.

My best advice to you is to embrace the process. Instead of thinking of all this as the hoops you need jump through to get to your childhood dream, concentrate on creating the best --and best presented!-- work you can create. No matter how many drafts it takes to get there, or how many rejections it might potentially garner.

Let me be clear, this advice in no way matches my own inclinations. But I've observed successful people in the arts, and they are all process focused, not goal focused --committed to what they are creating rather than on getting to the finish line. Even a self-published book for a small audience should be the "best you" you can put out there. You'll be more proud of it that way.

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