What does an unpublished writer do with her completed manuscript?

September 3, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Someone wrote to ask, “If a writer has never published before, but has a completed novel manuscript ready to go, what would you recommend he/she do with it?” 
I like this question, since it’s a situation I see frequently. If an author has a manuscript done, I’d encourage him or her to spend some time creating a few other pieces: a one or two page synopsis, a quick overview, a one sentence hook, a good list of three or four comparable titles to give the novel context, and a one-page bio that focuses on platform. All of those things are going to be important when you get to the important stage of talking to an agent or editor.
Next, I’d probably say, “The first draft of any novel is usually bad.” So I’d encourage the author to use the next couple months to polish it. Take it to a critique group. Have writer friends read and comment. Get it in front of an editor. Pay for a professional critique, if that’s possible. Not every bit of advice you get will be great (or even correct), but listening to the wisdom of others, particularly those who are farther down the path, can help you improve your book. Take your time to improve it, rather than typing the last word and sending it off. Make it as sharp as possible, since that’s the best way to get it published.
Then I’d say to the author, “Check out ALL your options.” Should they introduce themselves to agents? Sure. Should they try to get it in front of some editors at a writing conference? Of course. Should they consider small presses? By all means. Should they explore self-publishing? Yes. The world of publishing has changed completed over the past five years, so start looking at the various options you have as a novelist. But don’t jump on the first opportunity that presents itself. Take your time, get some counsel, and try to move forward professionally. You may find it best to sign with an agent, who can get it in front of good editors. But you may find you’re writing to a niche audience, and the best step is to land with a micro-publisher who specializes in reaching that particular segment of the market. Or perhaps the best option is to simply get it up on Amazon and see how people respond. As I said, check your options, get some counsel, then decide.
My take: Too many writers are in a hurry. The writers who get it done, THEN take steps to get it polished and ready, will stand a better chance at succeeding. Does that help?
I’d love to hear from unpublished novelists… What questions are you wanting to ask an agent?

Posted in Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing

  • Iola Goulton

    You say “get it up on Amazon” – if so, please get it competently edited first.
    As an alternative to Amazon, any thoughts on WattPad? My teenage daughter reads on there a lot, and I’m interested in knowing if you think that’s a valid option.

  • http://www.christianhomeandfamily.com/ Carey Green

    I’d like to know from an agent (you) if the traditional publishing world is changing much in light of the e-publishing craze? It seems they are going to have to (royalty percentages, for example).

    • chipmacgregor

      Publishing is in a state of revolution, Carey. Huge changes — to marketing, sales, distribution, contracts, royalites… the whole system. I blog about that at various times, by the way.

  • April

    Is it bad form to approach someone in the industry you know personally and ask for recommendations on who to query? Example: Ask an agent-friend (or agent-acquaintance) who doesn’t represent your genre for agent names in your genre for you to go research.

    • chipmacgregor

      I don’t know why that would be bad, April. People ask me all the time, and I”m happy to make suggestions. (My guess: You were raised Catholic.)

      • April

        Nope. Non-denominational Protestant. :)

        But I grew up in Asia as an MK, so maybe that’s influenced me. I just worried that asking would be taking advantage of the friendship (asking for something valuable for free, just because we know each other).

  • Chris Crawford

    I guess now that my first manuscript is at 105K and only 10K from being completed, I can consider myself an “unpublished novelist”. I’ve still got a long way to go before it’s ready for public consumption, but the biggest question I have now is what are the top two or three things I should do to get my novel noticed by agents, publishers and the public?

    • chipmacgregor

      The top two things? First, get help to make it as polished as possible. The first page should draw me in, and I should want to keep turning pages. Second, put together a great package for your proposal. My two cents, Chris. (And a lot of agents would probably say, “Second, build your platform.” So you know.)

      • Chris Crawford

        Thanks, Chip. Don’t worry, I’m going to polish it up – I won’t even let my wife read it until after the first revision.

        The closer I get to finishing, though, the more I’ve let myself consider the upcoming marketing aspect. It’s been so rewarding to finally see these stories in my brain taking tangible form on paper; I’m excited for the rest of the process.

  • Anne Love

    When preparing the platform blurb on a proposal, are there particular statistics you want to know from the author’s blog, specifically from their Google Analytics? I have GA linked to my blog, but find it complex and difficult to glean precisely what might interest an agent or editor.

    • chipmacgregor

      Sure — give me some numbers, Anne. How many people read your blog? How many visit your website? How many people hear you speak in a year, or read your words in the local newspaper, or listen to you on the radio? A platform, in essence, is a number — the number of potential readers you can reach out to with proven experience.

  • Jennifer Hallmark

    Is it important to write in only one genre? In only fiction or non-fiction? Or as a beginner should you try several types?

    • chipmacgregor

      Many beginners try writing various genres, since it broadens their scope, Jennifer. But eventually you’ll probably find yourself focusing on one genre, since it’s much easier to build an author platform when working deeply in one area.

  • http://rickbarry.blogspot.com/ Rick Barry

    I must agree that too many writers are in a hurry. Acquaintances have often asked me to look at sample chapters. When I see tons of simple spelling errors and basic grammatical flaws (I used to be a textbook editor), I can’t help sighing. These are basic tools of written English. A writer who won’t take the time to learn these basics can look like a wannabe doctor who holds up a scalpel and says, “I forget… What’s this for again?” (And in some cases I’ve pointed out the same errors over and over again. Sad to see.)

    • chipmacgregor

      Yeah — thanks for saying that, Rick. WAY too many writers in a hurry, then wondering why editors & agents don’t fall in love with their work.

    • Sharyn Kopf

      I have seen that too, Rick. Someone once wrote that most people don’t want to write a book, they want to have written one. And I’ve heard writers say, “I’m not very good at the grammar stuff.” And I think, well, you’d better get good at it because it’s part of your job. Like you, I compare it to a physician who says, “I don’t want to learn all the different medications so I’m just not going to prescribe any.”

      Just because it’s fun and has a glamorous side doesn’t mean we should forget writing is a profession and should be taken seriously. It takes time and hard work and will include aspects we don’t like.

  • Jaime Wright

    Some of the best advice given to me by my published mentor was at some point, shelve book #1 and write 2 and 3 and 4 and hone your skills. Rarely does your first try garner success. And frankly, if my first novel and its 4x’s reworked edits see any more light of day it might self-combust. And that’d probably be a good thing. ;)

    • April

      I hear this advice often, which makes me afraid to write. I love the stories in my head, but if I write them down I’ll end up shelving the first few? What a waste. :(

      • Jaime Wright

        Oh I’m sorry if I gave the impression that was a BAD thing. Writing that first, second and third novel for me was so much fun! And you learn so much as you do it. Tightening your story, firming up your structure, and as you research writing method you’ll watch those stories in your head become your fine tuned best friends for a season. I don’t regret the ones that won’t see the light of day. You’d regret it if you read them ;) but for me, it’s a blast each and every time. Definitely not a waste, but invaluable time spent doing what you love and getting better at it each time!

        • April

          Thanks for clarifying. It still makes me nervous though. I want others to love the stories that I love too! Ah well. Time (and hard work) will tell.

  • Lauren H Brandenburg

    Thanks, I needed that! I believe I have done just about everything you listed, including self publishing, webpages, blogging, and tweeting. I wish I had had this advice before I self published! Even after editing and a few critiques, the final product was far from where I wanted it to be. (My readers didn’t know…as most of them are middle grade, but I did). A year later, my attempts at finding an agent and/or publisher to take me to the next level are sending me frantic, anxious and disappointed. Your reminder to slow down was much needed. I love my book, my characters, and the ability I have been given to create them. In all the hunting, I have forgotten what I set out to do in the first place, and that wasn’t to stress myself out! It was and is to share my gift while giving my readers a place to fall into. Thank you again. This “her” knows what to do with her completed manuscript :)

  • Karen

    I feel like I am at the point where my novel is polished, my proposal is interesting, my synopsis tightly written and several variations of a query sit just a click away from my well-researched list of compatible agents. My problem is that I am late in the game on building a social media presence. For years, I felt like my main goal with the internet was to stay on top of my kids online communications. As a first time, unpublished author, I’ve been baffled as to how to build a following since I have a slim group of FB friends and my Twitter account looks like I passed away shortly after opening it. I am a hard worker. Extremely motivated, and, when pointed in the right direction, will persevere if given the opportunity. If my writing is strong and my concept is intriguing, will agents overlook my “late bloomer” status and work with me?

  • http://www.heartsonguard.com/ Vanessa

    Thank you for this! I have spent the last 9 months growing my following on my blog, facebook and twitter, and I’m in the middle of writing my first draft while working full time, blogging full time, being a military wife and mothering two toddlers. I cling to the wise words of seasoned authors who promise that all first drafts are rough, and I relish in the feedback I receive from the writers I’ve entrusted to read as I write. My current struggle is to not get ahead of myself or let my head be inflated by a friend who says she forgets it’s only a first draft as she’s reading, or writers who tell me I should quit my day job (not really an option when you’re the bread winner in the family). I don’t want to rush. I want to soak in this process and do it right, because this story needs to be heard. To rush it would be a disservice.
    Thanks again!

  • Barbara Robinson


  • Barbara Robinson

    I have four novels published with a small indy publisher, and I’m self-publishing others.

  • safion

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