Before Submitting, Get a Professional Reader

April 22, 2012
Before Agents Sign On
April 28, 2012

O ne of the things I am blogging about is the experience  of Getting Published, but it has been such a wild several weeks, this is the first chance I’ve had to write about the actual experience of getting an agent. Here’s my first blog on the topic, based on exactly one experience of getting an agent. Which, by the way, is not a statistically valid sample.

It’s really important that your manuscript is as good as it can be before you submit to an agent. I’ve read on a number of agent blogs and heard it from an agent who taught one of our classes: you really only have one chance to make a good first impression. If they liked the potential of a book the first time but felt it needed work, by the time the author revises and sends in the manuscript again, something has been lost. The freshness or the timeliness, something -- and they just can’t muster up enough enthusiasm the second time they read it. So I knew my manuscript had to be as good as I could make it, all by my ownself, before sending it to the agent of my dreams.

 
 

I don’t know about you, but for confidence, I wanted to get some outside opinions before sending to The Agent. And that’s after a really good group of classmates and our mentor, Shaena Lambert, had workshopped about 80 pages of a 300-page manuscript over 10 months. “Outside opinions” means readers who don’t also love me. So that leaves out the husband and the best friend.

The plan: to work with a professional story editor and get feedback of the sort I would have gotten from my fiction workshop, but more critical (read: brutal. I was prepared for brutal). Then revise, revise, revise for another couple of months to get the manuscript up to a level acceptable to an agent.

I wanted the opinion of someone who knows what good writing looks like, plus, who had insights into what agents find important. Unless you have a friend in the writing industry whose judgement you trust, and who is truly happy to do it for you gratis, I think you should be willing to pay for this. One thing that workshopping has taught me is that it’s terrifically hard work to read someone else’s writing, analyse what’s bugging you, and come up with useful criticisms that bring them up a notch. I really do not expect another author to take on the hard work of reading and reviewing a 300-page novel “as a favour.” Plus, as a consultant I firmly believe you get what you pay for. Someone who does it for free is less likely to make the same serious commitment and take as much care as someone who is being paid to do the job.

Since I’m new to the Vancouver writing scene, I turned to Betsy Warland, former director of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, for some recommendations. Betsy is truly the fountain of all knowledge regarding the local literary community. She did not know of any one author at that moment who had the skills and time to do both a reading for story and then work with me on an editorial basis; she suggested instead a 2-step alternative of one author who could do a reading, and then another to do the editorial work. First she put me in touch with  a Published Author who, very graciously and on short notice, agreed to review my manuscript. 

Long story short, Published Author read, got in touch, and said she loved the novel and the manuscript was at a level acceptable to an agent. No need to work with an editor for this phase of the process. Just think. If someone NOT in the business had said that would you have believed it? She also offered to introduce me to her agent, so that was really strong endorsement.

But still … so then I got in touch with another mentor, Beverly Martin, who has been advising writers about agents for years. She said that if a respected author thinks it’s ready to send in, send it in. “The last thing you want is for the agent of your dreams to receive a similar manuscript while you’re fiddling with yours; it’s rare, but it’s happened before.”

All of this gave me the confidence (and fear factor) to send the manuscript to Jill Marr, agent of my dreams. It really helped that I could say “by the way, a well-respected and published author has read this and loves it” because

(a) it means the work has been vetted by someone credible and

(b) The Agent is always thinking ahead about marketing; in this case, can someone provide an endorsement for your book before it goes to print? Again, that someone is not your husband or best friend. Unless one of them is also a published author with the last name of Ondaatje or Atwood.

Below, the email response from Jill:

Janie—I finished the manuscript this morning and WOW! I loved it! I just have a few, nitpicky things to address and we can discuss on Monday. Meanwhile, both my boss and our sub-rights manager are reading . I’m so excited to work with you on this!

My new favourite word: SQUuueeeee!

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