Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Rant: querying unfinished novels

Only after I emptied the coiffure-sized fire extinguisher on my spontaneously combusted hair, did I realize my NO!NO!NO! shriek reply on Twitter wasn't self-explanatory.

So, why is querying an unfinished novel a TERRIBLE idea?

Do I need to tell you it's harder than it looks to finish a book? If I do, this is your first book. More times than I care to remember has an "almost finished" novel been administered last rites and laid to rest in the steamer trunk.

You're querying something that hasn't been revised. If you finish and send it within a short amount of time, you haven't allowed enough time for revision. When I read it, I will know. And most likely you'll get a pass with "not fully cooked" as the gist of why.

Notice neither of these have to do with concept or execution. Or the writing. You can really shoot yourself in the foot by querying EVEN A GOOD NOVEL too early.

You're starting out on the wrong foot. I request the full, you reply with "it's not ready yet" and the implied "I just wanted to test the waters" means wasting my time is ok with you. Also ignoring the very specific guidelines that are there to help you avoid rookie mistakes like this.

Those are NOT qualities I'm looking for in a client.

You're free to ignore any guidelines you want. The QueryPolice will not show up at your door. There's no Ignored the Guidelines Blacklist. But, it's also not effective.

Your goal isn't avoiding the QueryPolice; it's getting an offer of representation.


Michael Seese said...

Can I query you with an idea I have? I promise I'll have it finished in a week or two.

Mister Furkles said...

Michel Crichton, a novelist of some repute, said:

"Books aren't written - they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it."

Ernest Hemingway, no slouch of a novelist himself, said:

"I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit."

So, do you really want anybody but trusted, kind, and brutal critique partners to read your first--or horrors: unfinished--draft?

So, I'm on draft two and afraid to post it to critique partners yet.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Querying an unfinished novel is like serving an uncooked meal. No one wants to chomp down on a raw chicken leg, sip cold tomato sauce out of the can, or chew dry noodles like chips. Give me a couple of hours with those ingredients and I'll make you a chicken cacciatore to write home about.
Same with writing.
Writing tartare doesn't work.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

The letting it cook bit is so important. The last thing I queried was finished but not fully cooked. I got an R&R on it which was good, I guess, but if I'd been honest with myself, it needing a lot of work and at least six more months of revision time. I might have served myself better if I had waited and done a bit more work or abandoned that book for the one I have now written sooner.

My newest book has been sitting since my last revision which I finished near the beginning of July. It felt like really finished for the first time. I liked the ending, the beginning, the arc -all of it. But our Queen has pounded it in to let things sit so I let it percolate these past 4 weeks.

Yesterday, I opened it up after having the whole thing printed out- I always read a printed copy out loud before sending to beta readers - and the book I thought they would get next week - well, it might be closer to September. It's little things now but if I can see it, an agent will definitely see it...and probably pass. Take the time.

AJ Blythe said...

My take when I saw that post on twitter was that it was meant literally, a pitch at a conference. I figured they could take a query letter and get readiness checked for sharkly waters and it wouldn't matter if the book wasn't finished. They'd probably get asked for pages as well if it was any good.

Would this also be wrong?

*hoping hair can't spontaneously combust twice*

K. White said...

I also saw this on Twitter. It reminded me of the time I bought the early, early bird admission to a conference certain I'd have a book ready in eight months. Of course, I didn't, so I decided to pitch my idea. The agent loved it; requested I email her the manuscript right then. By the time I finished it 12 months later she'd lost interest. Probably because even that much time later the novel was still less than half baked.

Kelly said...

And yet... B.B. Alston signed a three-book deal with rights to film option after he pitched his middle grade work in progress this year. Do I think this is a good idea? Definitely not! But you can see why some might.

Amy Johnson said...

2Ns, u r 2funny. "Writing tartare." Ha!

There are critique partners here on the Reef who know I'm not so good about sending my material. Nope, this isn't good enough for their eyes yet. Gotta make it better first... Sorry, pals.

Brenda said...

Recipe please, 2NN’s.

Querying too early is a rookie mistake that I made because I really thought each draft was as good as it could possibly get. We all know that an unfinished book will get better. No excuse.

Some of you have read or are reading the current revisions. Thankyou!

Almost two years ago, in a moment of weakness, Janet requested the full and has since waited (waded?) through two complete rewrites.

I can testify that most agents are not that patient.


Fearless Reider said...

Is it weird that I prefer re-writing to writing? Slogging through a first draft is agony every step of the way, but revising never feels like work to me. The tinkering is the fun part.

Timothy Lowe said...

Question for Reiders: how do you really know when it's "ready"?

John Davis Frain said...

Endings are HARD.

'Nuff said.

MackAttack said...

On one of my writing podcasts, this was compared to auditioning a musical instrument, and I wholeheartedly agree. I've played the oboe for almost 20 years, and each new novel is like prepping a new piece.

First, you go through the piece and learn all the notes, fingerings, technical details and break them down. This is your first write of the novel, just getting your words on the page. Then you practice that beast at least a hundred more times, nailing the dynamics, the expression of the music, the tone. You try a couple different lengths for your staccato notes, you get all the accents in the right place and make them yours, you cement everything together in your muscle memory.

One of my teachers used to say, you put 100 pennies on your music stand (or more realistically, on a table next to you) and you start playing the piece top to bottom. Every time you play it 100% perfect, you slide one penny over. If you mess something up, slide the whole pile back and start over.

If you go to your audition with only the first part, you're not going to win yourself the chair you want. If you play it 100 times until it's exactly what you want it to be... you may just win yourself the chance to have your new director tell you to change half of it.

But you HAVE to show that you've gone through the rigor and practice in the first place. Because this is the hard part, and if you don't prove that you can do it now, no one is going to believe you'll slog through it later. Querying is all an audition. You've gotta show just how far you can take your work and make it dazzle, and that's where the real work will begin.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Timothy Lowe I have been trying to figure that out myself. As far as I can tell, you don't. Not really. Go with your best instinct and hope you have some top-notch beta readers that will tell you if anything is amiss that might make an agent say no. So yeah, you don't know when it's really done. The only thing I have seen for sure, it's never the first draft no matter what Jeff Somers says.

Irene Troy said...

Advice to writer: I attended a writer's workshop where I met an agent in an informal setting (read not a pitch session or part of the formal conference). We started talking about an issue related to my WIP (a memoir). I shared that I was writing about that issue, but we did not go into great detail. It was simply a shared interest and something "hot" in the socio-political climate. A year later, I had the opportunity to meet with another agent in a formal session. I was about 5 minutes into the pitch when she stopped me and asked if I was the same person who discussed the work with agent #1. Shock! Lesson: agents talk with one another. Even if they work in different cities for different agencies, they talk with one another. Don't shoot yourself in the foot before you are even out the door. Follow the standard guidelines of the industry.

JanR said...

Only after I emptied the coiffure-sized fire extinguisher on my spontaneously combusted hair... What a GREAT line :)

This is true for even stuff you *have* to do fast. My day job is constant writing production, but if I can manage things so I finish a draft the afternoon before deadline, buying me an overnight to let it sit, it always always makes a difference. How much more (and longer) for a novel. I really like the way you put it, EM Goldsmith.

Brenda said...

Timothy Lowe
When there is no challenge left, from yourself or anyone else.

Beth Carpenter said...

Fearless Rider, I agree. The tinkering and rewriting is much more fun. What's that quote? Something about shoveling sand so I can build castles. I hated it when slow writing meant I couldn't spend as much time revising one book before sending it to the editor, and yes, she asked for more revisions than usual.

Carolynn, "Writing tartare doesn't work." Love that line!

Casual-T said...

@Timothy Lowe... Easy: Stick a fork in it!

As for the original topic of this thread: The words “testing” and “practice” were mentioned in the questioning tweet. Those are, by definition, activities that need to happen BEFORE taking your work out into the field. As a musician myself, I wholeheartedly agree with what MackAttack wrote. You learn the mechanics of a piece (1st draft), you delve into the details (revisions), then you figure out the actual music (Hemingway). Once ALL of this has been done, and done again (and then some more), is the time to let people you would like to work with hear/see/smell your art.

Besides, it should seem obvious from the rancid aroma of charred hair, next to the unsightly view of an author’s foot sporting a self-inflicted gunshot wound, that presenting unfinished work is not a very beneficial use of neither the agent’s nor the author’s time. As with cigarettes, it might be advisable for agents to put a warning label on their website, stating that “Querying uncooked novels can be detrimental to your health.”

Claire Bobrow said...

Now I'm craving (fully-cooked) chicken cacciatore and oboe music.

And I have the same question as Timothy Lowe.

Janet, last night I dreamed I met you (though I don't actually know what you look like). Your "dream" hair was intact, so I'm confident the fire extinguisher worked. Watch out for those incendiary comments!

Craig F said...

To be a writer is to believe your stuff is good enough to be published. That is fine, but it makes a huge amount of us stick our foot in it at one time or another. It is especially true for those who think writing conferences are a good idea, but don't know why.

Casual-T: we have thermometers nowadays.

I am afraid that I will edit the magic out of my work if I go too far. I ask my beta types to tell me how many time they went ooh, if at all. If they have a couple, and no real bitch, I call it done.

One thing I have noticed out in the real world: If you leave a couple of small and easily repaired errors in something, bigger crap can slide by.

A belated Yeah for Amy, with the southern drawl cats sing a chorus of meow-y'all

Casual-T said...

@Craig F... Thermometers are for ninnies. Give me a wooden stick picked on a moonless Transylvanian winter night, and an old trapper's sock, and I'll let you know if that steak is ready.

Cheryl said...

This just strikes me as saying right out that you're not going to bother finishing the book if one or two agents show no interest. Were I an agent I would want someone with a bit more dedication than that.

Karen McCoy said...

Such a timely topic, and one that writers don't often talk about (at least in public): How many times it really takes to get a book ready. (Such a great quote from Michael Crichton, thank you Mister Furkles).

I had five full requests on a book that I later learned was structurally flawed, mostly because I was so sure it was ready that I didn't have the humility to allow myself the freedom to make the necessary changes. I recently attended a workshop at a conference that focused on editing, and it was probably the most useful session I've attended.

Three key points:

1. Let go of your need to control the outcome

2. Whatever you're writing has to serve the greater story

3. Rewrite the book scene by scene by scene (I've often done this with two documents side by side, re-typing the previous drafts and making changes as I go.)

KDJames said...

*raises hand warily* I did this once.

It was a long time ago (OMG, I just checked, it was 12 years ago). My RWA chapter had arranged for three agents and an editor to attend a meeting for a Q&A type session and they all agreed to hear pitches beforehand from anyone who wanted to pitch. So it's not *quite* as bad as if I had sent an actual query.

I knew darn well, even back then, it was Bad Form to pitch an unfinished ms. I asked a friend (NYTBA and client of one of the agents) whether it would be awful of me, in this circumstance when they had already agreed to "waste" their time that day. She said it wasn't awful, but cautioned that no agent or editor would believe you were actually going to finish a book until you had done so. Nothing personal, they just wouldn't believe it.

So I pitched (first and only time). I didn't die, which was a genuine fear. I told the agent up front it was unfinished. She brushed that off and was graciously enthusiastic, even though she said it sounded like there were structural problems (within 10 minutes, how did she know?) (superpowers, that's how). Asked questions about my "career goals" that I wasn't expecting. Requested a partial and synopsis, which I never sent. No point in compounding my error.

Do I regret it? Sort of, but not really. I learned I could not, in fact, finish that book in three months. I learned to never do that again. And I learned that sometimes much-needed humility is only gained by stupidly embarrassing the hell out of yourself. Oh, and I eventually admitted there were indeed structural problems in that ms. So many problems.


Yes, I am that writer who proves the old adage: "If you can't set a good example, you'll just have to serve as a horrible warning."

Learn from my mistakes, kids.

Liz Penney said...

CAVEAT: once you are published in a genre, you can often sell on proposal. I did, earlier this year. 3 book deal. And while BB's situation might be rare, it happens. Something hot enough is sometimes sold on proposal.

julie.weathers said...

Oh, this is such good advice. Never send it out until it's done, done, done.

I've said this before, but on my last go round, I sent Far Rider out to a very nice, top NY agent who met all the criteria including the requisite blue shirt. It's a sign.

He requested the full within minutes. I'm speaking speed of light minutes. Hit send, get a reply.

Even after you've revised and you think you have it as good as you can get it, you don't. It sits. Then you go back and you realize it has fatal flaws. Beta readers look at it and holy crow, what were you thinking? Back to revising again.

Then you have conflicting beta readers. One wants to get rid of all the letters from the other POV character, the Confederate captain and love interest. Others have fallen in love with him because of the letters. One beta reader emails after she reads the letter he rights just before he goes into battle, "Sorry, Baron and I are running away to Paris. Please apologize to Lorena and my husband. We'll be back in 1865."

So, you start balancing comments.

Brenda's been through this. Moses, Mary, and Joseph, is that a story. I tried to put a reserve on the book with Amazon, but it wouldn't let me.

Timothy "Question for Reiders: how do you really know when it's "ready"?"

When you start shuffling commas for something to do to improve it and then shuffling them back.

It's never "done". Sometimes you just have to stop.

Dr. Frain Endings are hard. I'm not sure I have the right one for RC, but I can't think of another one right now. As a matter of fact, I feel like I stole the final line, but I can't find it anywhere. Truly, I do feel like a fraud.