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Complete Your Manuscript Before You Submit It

It may seem like a basic instruction, but before you seek any kind of representation or publication, make sure the first draft of your novel is complete. You would be surprised by number of writers, looking to get their book published, seem to think that it is possible for them to secure the representation of an agent, or get a publishing deal, even if they have only completed some of the chapters and the synopsis.


I know this is the bane of many publishers because, if they like what they read in a submission sent to them, they want to go on to read the rest of the book to ensure that the quality and energy in the opening is sustained throughout the novel. Theoretically it might be possible to get agreement to take your book to the next level without the novel being complete, but it is unusual, particularly if the work is by a debut author. Any agent or publisher, even if they love your idea and your sample chapters, will require to see the whole manuscript.


Put simply, the agents and publishers want evidence that your quality of writing is sustained throughout the novel. Writing a novel is not an easy thing to do and therefore it is important that they see you can properly plot and pace your book. Although this is important, it is not the only thing they are looking for. You also need to prove to them that the character development and other aspects of writing a long piece of prose are within your capabilities.

The agents and publishers must also know that you have the energy, commitment, and resilience to finish a novel. If you are not a professional fulltime writer, this last point may be the most crucial. There are few writers who have not written at least some chapters of a novel they have never finished and if your writing has to compete with running a home, an external job or organizing a family, setting aside time to complete a book can be challenging. To write a novel is an enormous commitment. No agent or publisher wants to make an offer unless they are sure that you will complete the writing required of you within the time limits they set.


When you think about how long your manuscript needs to be, there are many points to take into consideration and there is no one right answer to this question. It depends not only on the genre of the novel you are writing but also on your target audience. This is one of the reasons that you want to know who your target audience is going to be.

For commercial adult fiction, such as crime novels, that I write or romance novels, by Rosie Travers or Lizzie Chantree, most publishers will typically be looking for something in the order of 70,000-100,000 words. It would not be easy for a debut novelist to secure representation or publication of a such a novel that was much longer than this. This length allows the story to be properly told without it losing pace. If you consider earlier books by established authors of commercial fiction such as Ian Rankin (who writes the DI John Rebus crime series) you will notice that these novels are much shorter than the works he has published more recently.


Other genres, including science fiction or fantasy, which may require world building in addition to the tale being told, will probably be longer. For fiction aimed at younger readers, publishers will typically be looking for shorter manuscripts and the precise expectation of length will depend on the anticipated age range. If you are submitting a work of literary fiction, agents and publishers tend to accept a wide range of lengths. These vary from books little longer than novellas at 50,000 words to extremely long works of 200,000 words or sometimes even more.

In truth, a debut author will struggle to persuade any agent or publisher to accept a novel much more than 100,000 words long, unless the work is something exceptional, for example Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle or Eleanor Catton’s first book, The Luminaries. Check the submission guidelines of the business you plan to submit to as these may specify the minimum and maximum word count those agents or, even more particularly, publishers are willing to consider. Many independent publishers are unwilling to consider novellas under 30,000 words in length or novels over 90.000 words long.


Of course, these traditional expectations of book length have been influenced by physical books. Purchasers browsing the shelves of a bookshop are more likely to be attracted to your book which, simply in terms of physical appearance, seems to offer good value for money without being unduly intimidating in length. One major commercial publisher considers the ideal length of book to be 95,000 words for this reason.

Because of this, several publishers, especially those who focus on e-books, are prepared to consider a flexible approach to the length of your novel. Naturally, customers who read e-books are much less focused on the physical size of a book. Their reading progress is measured in percentage terms rather than page numbers. In any event, quality is always more important than quantity. But realistically, if you want to secure agent representation or a publishing deal, your first step must be to complete your book.


The first draft does not have to be perfect, but it does have to be written. Any agent or publisher will have ideas as to how your manuscript can be improved and made more saleable. You will probably have to put up with substantial editing, particularly as a debut author, even if you are eventually lucky enough to secure a deal. However, under no circumstances would you submit your first draft to an agent or a publisher! The draft you send may be the third, tenth or twelfth, whatever number it is, the manuscript should be complete and as polished as you can make it.

If you are to achieve your ambition of becoming a published author, your draft manuscript must be distinctive, well written, skillfully plotted, interesting and the story should be about gripping characters. So, ensure that your story is complete and that it makes sense. It should run in a logical order, and if you have different scenes taking place at divergent times or in distinct places, make sure that these are well sign-posted so that the reader does not get confused. If they do, they will probably stop reading your book.


Of course, each writer works differently, so that some writers produce highly detailed plot summaries before they start writing as Sue Moorcroft and Amit Dhand do. Others make the story up as they go along. They are known in the trade as plotters or pantsers - flying by the seat of their pants. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, making a sketched plot before I start writing and make up the details as I go.

Consider which camp you fall into. If you produce a fully plotted plan, then the process of writing your novel is largely about fleshing out the structure that you have already created. However, if you begin with a looser structure, but edit and correct as you go, you can still end up with a relatively polished first draft. Those who write more quickly without much of a plot outline, produce a completed narrative, may well leave inconsistencies and gaps or sections that are not fully developed. The author will then have to take more time to return to resolve these once the first outline draft is complete.


These are all perfectly legitimate ways to write, but they do carry different implications in terms of how much revision you need to apply to the first draft. Be aware of how you write and take responsibility for the work you still require to do after the first draft is finished.

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