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Saturday, June 18, 2011

How You Know When You're Ready

I’ve had a couple of critique partners ask me: “How do I know when my book is ready?” My honest answer has been that I really don’t know. I mean I thought Finding Claire Fletcher was ready about five times. Turns out it wasn’t. Well that’s not entirely true. The very first time I sent it out I had an inkling that it was too long and that there might be a few problems with it although for the life of me—at the time—I couldn’t have told you what those problems might be. Or I would have fixed them!

The first revision I did to Finding Claire Fletcher I cut 36,000 words, added two major plot points and changed the ending. I went over it and over it and over it and I felt like it was ready. But now looking back—did I really think it was ready or did I just think that it was a million times better than the first draft?

It was certainly a million times better than the first draft and I wouldn’t have sent it back out into the world unless I thought it was ready. But after a year or so of querying and not getting anywhere (I had requests for it but all those requests led to rejections) I decided to give it to my very first critique partner and see what she thought. I had no idea what I wanted from her. I just knew that as much as I had improved and shortened the book, I was still coming up against a wall when it came to finding an agent. Bang, bang, bang goes my head against this wall!

So she read it and in a nutshell she pointed out that the book didn’t know what it wanted to be or where it was going. In its own way it was all over the place. Sure it was good and it was suspenseful but it was still rather long and there were a lot of things plot-wise that she thought I could safely drop. Basically she said to me that the book should be Claire’s story. The focus should be on that and that alone. In that one sentence I suddenly saw all the places that I could cut and still have a pretty darn good story to tell. So I cut another 30,000 words, leaving out a major, major piece of plot and dramatically changing one of the main characters. It hurt a little. I mean obviously I liked the book the way it was or I wouldn’t have been querying agents with it. But I knew that if I wanted to make it better, I had to do something. By that time I also knew that I needed to get it somewhere under 110,000 words.

As I said in my post about word count, the number of requests for fulls and partials that I got once I got it down to 108,000 words increased dramatically—using the same exact query. But when I looked at it I could see how my plot had gone from being all over the place to being far more tightly focused. Finally, I believed it was ready. Really and truly ready. I guess it was since that draft got me an agent.

It’s hard to know when your own book is ready. Critique partners are great to help you with that but ultimately you are going to be the one biting your nails hoping for a contract when an agent asks you for a full.

I have a friend who has her first full out and she is looking over her manuscript, knowing that a literary agent now has it and is or will be reading it and she says she is finding mistakes and things that she absolutely hates. I know what she is going through. She is the one who actually gave me one possible answer to the question: “How do I know if my book is ready?” and I think that you have to try to read your book pretending that an agent has it and is going to read it.

There is nothing quite like having your first full out. You’re all nerves and excitement and more nerves and anxiety and trepidation and euphoria. It’s a roller coaster. But most of all I think that when you go back to your book and look at it again, you look at it with different eyes. All of a sudden it’s not the book you spent months or years immersed in. It is something completely different, alien. Now it is in the hands of someone who could either take you to the next step in the publishing process or send you back to square one. A total stranger. A stranger who isn't there to help you revise or critique. A stranger who doesn't care about your feelings. A stranger who is only going to tell you one of two things: yes or no.

So I think that my answer in the future to how do you know when your book is ready will be this: read your book as if you were standing over an agent’s shoulder while he or she is reading it. If nothing in it bothers you then it is ready—then you are ready.

I want to make a distinction here. Don’t re-read it as if you were the agent. We all read our work over and over again as if we were the agent. I mean that’s the idea right? We read it thinking “it should look like this or like that to an agent”. But when we do that, we’re constantly correcting as we go. We feel relaxed and low-key. We don’t feel any pressure. That’s how mistakes and/or things we don’t like creep into the book without us even realizing it.

You can’t read it like that. You have to read it as if you’ve already sent it out and you cannot correct it. You have to read it as if there was no turning back. Read it as if it is the performance, not the rehearsal. Read it as if you don't get to correct it if you screw it up. Read it as if it is already the final product. Read it pretending the agent already has it and knowing that you only get one chance to make a first impression.

I’ll say it again: read your book as if you were standing over the agent’s shoulder while he or she reads it. If you do this and there are things in your book that make you cringe—it’s not ready. It might help (and this was suggested to me by the brilliant Nancy Thompson) to put it in PDF format and read it that way. That would eliminate all temptation to edit as you go. I would even go a step further. I’d put it into PDF and then email it to yourself—symbolizing your having emailed it to an agent. You have to use your imagination. You have to pretend—to mentally trick yourself into believing an agent already has it in order for this exercise to be effective.

It might be one of those things you aren’t really able to do unless an agent actually has it but I think it is worth a try.

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