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June 30, 2024 12:00
Woman reading book illustration. Are you ready to send your novel to literary agents and publishers?
editing your novel
literary agents

Are You Ready? When To Query Agents

Lizzy Goudsmit Kay. Former senior commissioning editor at Penguin Random House
Lizzy Goudsmit Kay
June 25, 2023
June 25, 2023

Are you ready to send your novel to literary agents and publishers? Are you sure?

Trust us when we say it’s a big mistake to send your novel out into the world before it’s really ready.

It’s easy to be distracted by the image of an agent briskly sifting through hundreds of submissions in their straining inbox and casting them all aside, and to feel despondent. It makes sense to panic, to throw your novel on to the pile just to see what happens, if it can – by some miracle – stand out among the masses. This is the wrong approach.

Never fear: our editorial director Lizzy Goudsmit-Kay, who spent almost a decade as a commissioning editor at Penguin Random House and is an internationally bestselling author herself, offers some advice for how to know you’re really ready to send your manuscript out into the world.

Agents are looking for something polished

The truth is, most agents – while time-poor – skim their submission folder desperately hoping to find a novel that they really want to represent. I know, from almost a decade as a commissioning editor, there’s a real thrill in starting a submission and feeling straightaway you’re in a safe pair of hands: this novel is interesting, this story is special, the writer is really, really good. I would – and did – read hundreds of openings in pursuit of that feeling. An agent reads many, many more. And they do this because they want to love your work.

Don’t become distracted by intangible things like odds and likelihoods and statistics. Write a brilliant novel. Submit a brilliant novel. Do not send something not-quite-finished, poorly formatted or just about good enough. Do the work first.

I can almost hear your groans of despair, because you know all of this already and you’re doing the work and you think it might be ready, but…

It’s hard to know, right?

Because editing is eternal and a story can change shape again and again (and very few published authors will tell you their published novels are perfect). You aren’t alone, here. You are sitting in a spot occupied by every writer at some point. And there is a reason that this is so tricky.

 

It’s hard to tell when you’ve finished editing

A great many things must come together to transform a blank sheet of paper into a finished novel: the idea, a character, some determination, a hefty dose of resilience. And one little ingredient that is more important than all the others combined: hope.

It’s the belief that your story will one day sit on paper instead of living only in your mind that compels you to keep going, word after word, when sometimes the task feels impossible. And, if you’re considering submission, then hope has propelled you all the way to a full, complete and finished novel. And the hope is still there, badgering you. You want the story printed, bound, on bookshelves. And we don’t blame you!

We work with some of the very best literary agents in the business, those who represent prize-winners and bestsellers, who are determined to find the next great stories. If you’ve been writing for a while, and focusing on publication, then you likely know already that your best bet is to submit to one of these agents in the hope that they will love your novel and want to offer representation.

So is it time to submit?

Honestly? Not yet.

Ask yourself – and be truthful – if you’ve finished this round of editing.    

Do you know not only the entire backstory of each and every character in your novel but how they’ll respond in just about any situation? If a waiter accidentally spills red wine all over their white outfit? Will your protagonist be standing straightaway, screaming and shouting? Will the best friend – or husband, or daughter – apologise to the waiter? Do you know every single plot beat, for the main narrative arc and each sub-plot too? Do you know where the tricks and turns of your story sit, the moments that will surprise, the chapters that feel most satisfying?

Yes! Yes! All of it! Yes!

Then it’s time for a gear change.

This is the moment ­– cruel as it sounds – to briefly clip the feathers of your hope. Take a step back from the big dream, and ask yourself the above questions again. Don’t give the answer you wish was true. Don’t let your hope do the talking.

More important than hope, at this stage, is certainty.

How to know when your novel is ready to send to agents

You don’t have to be certain that your novel is exceptional or that agents will be falling over themselves to represent you. But you do need to be absolutely sure that it’s the very best that you can make it. If you can set hope aside, and are ready to focus on certainty ­– is this novel really finished? – here are a few final things to check:

1. Trust your instincts

I cannot tell you how many times the editorial team here at The Novelry have offered feedback on a writer’s work only for the writer to sigh and then confess they knew that the ending wasn’t quite working, or that the beginning felt a little too slow, or that the characters were still a little thin. If you can see the problems – or, indeed, feel them – then address them. I promise you that other people will be able to see them too.

If you decide you are ready to send this novel to an agent, you are saying to them that this book is the very best you can make it. You don’t want them to come back to you and say something that you already knew. Address those niggles first!

(I know that you still don’t want to do it and you think maybe the problems aren’t obvious, but trust me, they are!)

2. Take a rest from your manuscript

A novel, like bread, needs time to prove.

The process of writing requires a lot of patience, and yet writers are not naturally very patient people… Nonetheless, you need to set your novel aside for at least a fortnight, preferably a month.

I expect you’ve now read it so many times that you simply cannot focus on the words anymore and find yourself skimming through the pages – scrolling, scrollllllllllling – so it’s time to put it away (not to send it away; put it away). If the file has been open on your screen for weeks, or months, or years, press save and close it down. If you have a print-out, tuck it in a drawer or – even better – in the recycling.

It's time to wait. It will still be there in a month; I promise. And you will be a better reader and editor after a break.

I would recommend using this quiet, peaceful, non-writing month to engage in a writer’s second favourite hobby: reading.

3. Follow the 2% rule

I go by the 2% rule. If you return to your manuscript after a month, read it with fresh eyes and find only a handful of small tweaks that need addressing, then you can start to feel more certain.

If you find yourself changing more than 2% of your story, or your sentences, or your structure, then it’s going to need reworking and then another month to prove. I know it can feel relentless, but I would encourage you to continue like this for as long as it takes. Be patient. This isn’t the moment to rush.

4. Format the document to industry standards

You don’t want typos or grammatical errors in this final draft. You don’t want a rogue font. If you’re finding lots of conflicting advice online, then focus on making it easy to read: a normal font in a normal size, double-line spacing, chapters beginning on a new page with the title or number centred and underlined.

And then?

Learn how to edit your novel on The Novel Development Course

Have you completed the first draft of your story? If so, it’s time to congratulate yourself and take a breath. And then? It’s time to start the self-editing process.

The Novel Development Course is a structured program for writers to revise and polish their manuscripts to the highest publishing standards. You’ll work with a professional book editor, formerly an acquiring editor for major global publishing companies: Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan and HarperCollins. In the first session, your editor will review the structure of your story before you begin revising it through the course. In the second session, your editor will give feedback on your writing with a report on your submissions package. Add as many additional feedback sessions from the editorial team as you wish at members’ rates. Your editor team will oversee your progress from a first planning session to management of the literary agency submission process on your behalf when your novel is ready.

Sign up for The Novel Development Course here.

 

You’re confident that your novel is ready? You’re certain?

Then it’s time to unclip your wings and hope again.

You need to write a stand-out cover letter and a brilliant synopsis. The Novelry has free resources to help you with these, so you can read our guide to writing an agent cover letter and our editors’ advice on how to write a great synopsis. When you join us for our writing classes we help writers with both of these, as well as offering one-to-one coaching from a team of published authors and daily lessons from our founder Louise Dean, a Booker Prize-listed award-winning author. On The Big Edit, you will work with an editor with experience working at a ‘Big Five’ publishing house to polish your manuscript to publishing standards.

Once you have these ready, you need to research the very best agents for your story. You need to send it into the world!

There comes a point where you have to put aside the fear and anxiety and the sense that your novel, the words on the page, will never live up to the story in your mind. Submit it. Relax. You have wings again!

Someone writing in a notebook
Lizzy Goudsmit Kay. Former senior commissioning editor at Penguin Random House
Lizzy Goudsmit Kay

Before joining The Novelry, Lizzy Goudsmit Kay was a Senior Commissioning Editor at Transworld Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House, home to general fiction authors including Kate Atkinson, Dan Brown, Bill Bryson, Lee Child, Richard Dawkins, Paula Hawkins, Rachel Joyce and Sophie Kinsella.

Members of The Novelry team