Should You Write the Whole Book?
Classic wisdom for unpublished authors seeking traditional publication has been this:
If you’re writing a novel (fiction), you need a complete manuscript. If you’re writing non-fiction, you need a book proposal plus two or three sample chapters. If you’re writing a memoir, who knows — everybody has a different opinion.
Here’s what is true and will always be true: unpublished fiction authors MUST have a complete novel before trying to get an agent or publisher. No question, no exceptions.
But things are changing in publishing, especially when it comes to non-fiction. In some ways, the standards are higher. It’s more of a risk for a publisher to say “yes” to an unproven author. And in light of this reality, I’m going to make a bold and probably controversial suggestion.
No matter what you’re writing, even if you’re already published, even if it’s non-fiction or memoir:
Consider writing the whole book before you search for a publisher.
Why would I say such a thing? A few reasons:
1. It lowers the risk for the publisher.
Recently I’ve been submitting proposals to publishers with the entire manuscript attached rather than just a few sample chapters. Without exception, editors are telling me how much they appreciate me sending them the entire book. It takes away so much of their risk and guess-work. Even though they’re planning to edit the book, they know exactly what they’re getting. They know for sure that the author can deliver a manuscript that satisfies from beginning to end.
2. It makes the publisher much more confident.
There have been instances when I sent the entire manuscript to an editor, and soon I was told that the editors, the sales people, and the marketing people had all read the manuscript cover-to-cover. When that many people at a publishing house have that “can’t put it down” feeling, it leaves no doubt in their minds about whether they can sell this book. They experienced the book themselves, and they’ve already begun to develop a vision for how they can sell it. Their confidence in the value of the book is high.
3. Consequently, you have a much better chance of selling it.
When several members of the publishing committee all have a strong gut-level “buy in” on your book, they naturally want to try and acquire it. They’re much more likely to put an offer on the table because of the certainty about the product they’re acquiring. This is completely different from the more common scenario — a strong proposal and some killer sample chapters that still leave them waffling a bit as they wonder… will the rest of the book deliver what this proposal says it will? Is this going to be a satisfying reading experience, making people want to recommend the book to their friends?
4. Finishing a book is harder than you think.
One of the things I’ve been learning over the last few years is how very difficult it is to write an entire book when you’re contractually obligated to a deadline, and you’ve never written a complete 60,000-to-100,000 word piece before. You have no idea what it’s going to take until you do it. You may be uber-confident you can deliver the entire thing and have it be awesome, but publishers know this isn’t always the case. The best way to set yourself up for success is to prove to both yourself and your potential publisher that you can do it — by having it already done.
A few notes:
- For unpublished novelists, I am not saying anything different than the standard wisdom that has always been true: don’t try to get an agent or publisher until your novel is complete, edited, revised and polished.
- I am not trying to create a new gospel for publishing. I’m simply putting this idea out there as a suggestion that might help some of you reach success.
- I always prefer memoir-writers have a complete manuscript rather than just a sample. Memoirs are tricky and very difficult to craft from beginning to end, in some ways even harder than a novel. Memoirs usually require not only a complete manuscript, but one that has been worked and reworked multiple times before it’s right.
- This advice isn’t meant to supersede whatever advice your own agent is giving you. Trust your agent!
- You may find that you can get an agent with your non-fiction proposal and sample chapters, but your agent may suggest you write more of the book before submitting to publishers. Be open to discussing this.
- Publishers still buy non-fiction based on a stellar proposal and sample chapters. Just remember, the more you can provide them to raise their level of confidence and emotional buy-in, the stronger your chances.
- If you go to the effort of writing the whole thing and still can’t sell it to a traditional publisher, you’re perfectly positioned to self-publish. So there’s really no downside.
What do you think? Have you heard this advice before? Are you willing to write a whole book before trying to sell it? Is it worth it?
Thank you for your honesty. I’ll be honest, I was tempted to send the first three chapters of my book in to the publishers, but I’m only at 33 and odd thousand words, which is still quite on the short side. I’m 16 and this is my first time trying to write a novel (although I have had experience with shorter works) and so I am still on that Writing-High drug-feeling. Trying to jump the gun is never a good thing.
I really needed to hear this. I have been working on a literary non-fiction for nearly 5 years now, two of which I’ve been paying for my son to be in daycare so I can work more seriously on it. I keep asking myself ‘when is enough enough?’ A publisher may want to change things anyway, why spend so much energy and effort revising and perfecting it myself? Why? Because I have pride in creating a good work that will set the stage for me as a new author. It is also heavy in theory. I am bringing a new idea to the world and that takes time. My book is not something I could have just busted out and sent away. The ideas need work. Still, I wonder if the end I see in sight is just a mirage. Anyway, thank you for this advice.
[…] 1. Write your book. This is the most important part. You cannot go to a book publisher with only an idea. It has to be a finished manuscript. […]
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Just came across this post, and wondered if your opinion holds a year later? Some say there are two big maxims for non-fiction: motivate the reader and satisfy the publisher. The first needs good writing on a hot topic for a target readership. The second requires professional credibility and publicity chops. It’s possible, even common, to have one of these under your belt, and not the other. In the case of a writer who hits a bullseye with a quality text, but lacks sufficient promotional background, your column’s advice seems especially relevant.
[…] Is it necessary to write the whole book before I submit it to editors, agents, and publishers? […]
Great advice Rachelle, like the “Dreaming GOD-SIZED Dreams” you gave at the 2012 OC Christian Writers Conference. I keep my flash card right here, as you said. Now, your advice on nonfiction memoirs establishes a vital standard for me. Even though I had revised the ms many times, when I started to prepare the proposal, I learned that the action must start within the first 50 pages. Now, it makes much more sense to have the ms finished, edited and critiqued. I have about 65,000 words and I feel more confident as apply books and conference materials, even though it seems like every step takes months. Thanks for your teachings and contribution to my writing career. I really appreciate it. God bless. JR
Another good reason for finishing a non- fiction book before approaching an editor or agent is that books have a way of shifting and changing as you write them. There have been times when I started writing an article I’d pitched to an editor and once I was half way through writing it, I wished I’d pitched it differently but I felt like I would appear ditzy if I were to ask the editor to completely change what I’d already been contracted to write. I have some book ideas I’m working on, but I’ve promised myself that I won’t pitch them until I have at least a good rough draft completed.
i am having issues with starting my first chapter what can i do i wrote a summery for it but not the first chapter
hi i am writing my first fiction book it about a boy who is being bullied and wants it to stop it is call A Cry for Help what do you think
Great advice, and I might add, once you’re done your novel and it’s polished and amazing, don’t waste your money on an agent. If they don’t have the clout to sell something on faith that’s not complete yet, then what is it they are exactly doing for you that you can’t do for yourself? A complete amazing work that editors would buy off your agent they’ll buy off you. Oh, right, agent’s peddle your secondary rights and “make sure you don’t get screwed.” Give me a break. Anyone can figure out how not to get screwed by talking to a lawyer. I say finish it! And then put it up as an e-book on Kindle while shopping directly to editors. Contact lawyer when you get a bid from editor. Agents do nothing but block you from publishers, then they want to get paid for introducing you to them! They’re like a bully who wants your lunch money.
I am wondering what you’d think about this scenario:
I am editing a non-fiction book for an author who has much of all seven chapters but no one chapter completely written. How about submitting a sample of all seven chapters?
Thank you for this resource. This is exactly what I have been trying to figure out. I’m working on a collection of essays about the unraveling and rediscovery of faith (in which a personal story, not my whole life story but an account of a difficult year in my life weaves throughout). I never know whether to call this a ‘memoir’ because it’s not really a book about me or about my story but about universal themes like doubt and confusion and grace and discovery. Still, it is first-person narrative, creative nonfiction, personal anecdote (a style like Cold Tangerines or Grace Eventually). Is that memoir?
Anyway, got off track there, sorry. I’ve been trying to determine whether it’s necessary that my proposal include the FIRST three chapters/50 pages, or if ANY section of 50 pages (so long as the content stands alone) is okay. Reading this and looking at the kind of work it is, I think it’s best to have my whole manuscript ready to submit before querying. I haven’t seen this advice anywhere else and honestly never thought of it (having had the 50-page sample thing drilled into my head). I am confident this is the best direction though, so I very much appreciate the suggestion. Thanks, Rachelle!
Thanks for the post Rachelle. I have been following you on FB for awhile and you always have good advice and this post addresses a question I have had for awhile.
I am working on a memoir that revolves around returning to a place where a tragedy took place for its tenth year anniversary. The anniversary will not take place until the end of 2014, and I am wondering if it makes sense to begin the proposal process now even though I cannot finish the book for another 3 years or so.
Without the experience of the return to write about yet, it has been hard for me to figure out how to create the pitch when I am not sure about the outcome – or even how much the experience of returning ten years later itself might change the thrust of what I have written so far.
Would it be best to wait, or to see if there might be interest in the subject matter now? I hate the idea of wasting all this time waiting for 2014 if I can and should be pitching the idea now.
Thanks again for all your good advice.
I completely understand the point and agree with it in principle. But for non-fiction (I write both), it really does save you time to have a proposal and some sample chapters instead of writing the whole book. The reason I say this is that sometimes there is a very limited market for your topic, or else someone very well-known has written a book on that very same topic, so you may need to give yours a different focus. Also, in some cases you still need to conduct some research to finish the book – and it helps to have an advance or the certain knowledge at least that you will get it published before you spend money on travelling to do the research.
To be honest, Rachelle, I’m in the 11-14 age group. Writing’s a dream of mine, and I’d love to have one of my books published. Your advice rocks, and I’ll keep this stuff in mind. I’m sure it’ll help me in the long run. Thank you so much!
I find your post is really good. I have shared this with my friends. Hope there will be more good posts here.
Hi, I really appreciate your post here! I will pay attention to your posts regularly.
I didn’t know we had any other option than to write the whole book. Thanks for addressing this!
My memoir is going to be 25 stand alone chapters with one loose overall theme. I’ve got 18 if them done, 45,000 words, and eight of the chapters have been published in lit journals. Others are under consideration. Doesn’t this lit journal acceptance rate offset the promised last 15,000 words if I am to seek an agent now?
This was very helpful and affirming. Working on a memoir, and initially I was thinking in terms of the 2-3 sample chapters but it became clear that I’m going to be able to write a much better proposal once it has been “worked and reworked.”
Hi, I’m a published children’s author but I wanted branch out into fiction for adults. So I wrote a full length historical novel, which I then submitted to a publisher. They “liked” it but now want me to rewrite the whole thing and turn it from a stand alone novel into a “swashbuckling saga” that has the potential to become a series. So maybe I would have been better off doing what I usually do – just writing and submitting the synopsis and the first three chapters – then at least I wouldn’t be stuck with this massive rewrite.
My goal is to always finish my manuscripts before I send them out. That’s partly I’ve heard other editors and agents say that they don’t like it when aspiring authors send them query letters with big plans/ideas but haven’t actually written most/any of the novel yet. They say that those people are often more eager to be published authors than writers; that is, publication is more important to them than writing. And I don’t want to be like that.
I actually prefer to have a completed manuscript. And I can see why agents and publishers would prefer a finished manuscript. However, from a writing perspective, writing with a looming deadline always seemed to help me write better.
I had heard that writing an entire book and then trying to find a publisher was like buying a size 8 dress and going door to door trying to find someone to wear it. But you make a compelling case for completing the book. Thanks for sharing your expertise.
Thanks once again for your insight. I’m both a novelist (two finished manuscripts deep in revision) but I’ve been wondering if I should complete my nonfiction manuscript before submitting to an agent. Having written two 80,000 plus novels, I’m confident I could complete the project but I understand how helpful (and perhaps, relieving) it would be for an agent to have a full manuscript before they shop it. Makes perfect sense.
My project is an inspirational look at my family’s journey through liver disease and a transplant for my youngest daughter but it’s not strictly a memoir. I was preparing three chapters and a book proposal so I’m grateful for your advice.
Thanks, Rachelle! I always get useful information from your posts.
I am definitely in the write the whole book first camp. If a book is written before you submit for publication, it takes some of the pressure off you, the writer, especially in a memoir. If you submit two sample chapters and an editor/publisher/agent loves it and wants the remainder, you may end up on a deadline you can’t handle, especially if you’re writing about a difficult subject.
This makes complete sense to me and think it is wise advice. My focus is on non-fiction and I am already planning on having it completely finished before I seek an agent.
I’ve decided on this for two reasons.
1) Life sometimes gets in the way of our plans — and a 50,000 to 100,000 word book is not something that you can easily work around when you’re thrown a curve ball.
2) Sometimes my writing doesn’t take the path I initially envision. Although I always like the new direction better, but it would be better if I am the only one surprised and not my agent and publisher, too. I prefer to privately deal with such things and only show the finished product.
However, I hope that everyone ignores your advice — that way I have a better chance of standing out!
That made me laugh, Peter. 🙂
I’m an unpublished novelist, and I never dreamed about submitting an unfinished novel, but I must chime in to agree with your fourth point for everyone. Finishing a book in any genre is hard work, and more importantly, it may not proceed as smoothly as you expect. You may find your original plan doesn’t work as well as you thought from your outline, or that your first draft is too long or too short for the genre and/or terms of your contract. And if you have a deadline, you may not have time to fix those things. If you finish the book first, you can take as long as you need to correct the problems and you will have a stronger product to try to sell.
I have written a memoir. My story is complete. I too have purchased Mary Demuth’s tutorial on Query letters and proposals/platform.
I am still working on this part of the requirement. Not an easy task.
I think waiting to submit your proposal on a non-fiction title until its complete makes sense for all the reasons Rachelle stated. Also, if you don’t find an agent or publisher you’ll be in position to self-publish.
I have to agree that a novel isn’t ready for submission until it has been revised and even rewritten. I know that the manuscript I thought was finished is not the same as the one I have today.
I used to direct plays for a small community theater and I found I could identify the actors who would never rise above barely adequate because they were the ones that thought they were ready as soon as they had memorized their lines. The exceptional actors were the ones that realized that knowing your lines was just the first step – then you learned the character – then you added the nuances that brought the character to life.
A newly finished manuscript is likely far from a being a refined and polished manuscript, the kind that keeps us turning the pages.
Thanks for the great reminders Rachelle! I think that just because someone has been successful in one genre doesn’t mean that they would also be an effective writer in another either. Writing tools can cross genres, but proficiency in their use is only developed through experience and skill development. Talent is the intersection of practice and craft and knack, and I don’t think any of us are born with it.
Maybe it’s just me, but I would expect an agent, editor or publisher to want to see a solid working draft of any manuscript, no matter what the category, for anyone without an extensive proven track record in that genre. Even in nonfiction, we’re talking about a creative process, and when you’re trying to be creative, what’s happening in the life of the author matters. As a writer, I expect that someone is going to want to see what I can do, not a promise of it but the real thing.
With self-knowledge that comes from experience, a writer can understand how to face down the challenges to the creative process that arise from what life throws at you! If you know that stress is a real creativity-killer for you, you develop tools to remain creative even when stress is weighing you down. Your manuscript might have a great beginning and you know where the ending is going, but the middle is still fuzzy. You write a great first-person article that the editor then says needs to be completely objective in the third person, and the shift in perspective no longer suits the content and it throws you for a loop. With experience, you learn how to overcome the inevitable obstacles.
Does previous writing experience in another category matter? If you’ve been a good academic writer, does that count for more ‘street cred’ in, say, nonfiction about a completely unrelated non-academic topic? If you’ve been published in one fiction genre but have an unpolished manuscript in another, does that make an agent more comfortable accepting that less-than-complete work can be done on a deadline? I’d love to hear your take on this!
“Have you heard this advice before?”
“Are you willing to write a whole book before trying to sell it?”
Been there, done that. It is the quintessential activity of the starving author, is it not?
“Is it worth it?”
To do what you said you would do? To complete a goal? YES.
I think, this has always been the struggle for one whose heart says to write: How can I justify spending so much time on something with no guarantee of outcome? The only thing that has changed over the years (besides computers instead of carbon copies) is that now there is a safety net. The author did not waste time, can now be justified or vindicated through self publishing.
Rachel, I love your blogs, and am so grateful for your advice. In my later years I have felt called to write, and have begun to answer the calling. For me, unpublished and bumbling along trying to figure it all out, I am struck that I never thought of sending a query or sample chapters or anything of the sort because frankly with my chaotic life I wouldn’t know when I would be able to complete a manuscript. I just thought you have to finish it, have other people read it, tweak it and then try and find someone to publish it. Good to know I was right about that one! Thank you again for this wonderful blog. All of your posts and the comments of your learned readers have been a tremendous Godsend to me.
I too am unpublished and have only finished one novel, which is making the agent rounds right now.
As a pantster, it’s much easier for me to talk about and pitch a finished book than an unfinished one. I’m a quarter of the way into the sequel to my first one and while I do have a synopsis guiding me I still find things changing and refining on an almost daily basis.
I for one totally see the wisdom in always pitching a completed manuscript, even when you’ve broken the barrier and sold that first one. Especially for writers like me who sometimes don’t know the end until we get there.
Yes, I have heard that before, it has always made total since to me. I sort of think of it this way…Who would want to buy a painting that was not finished?
Would you want to buy only a few bars of a song?
Why try and sell a book with only a few chapters written?
By writing the whole book, beginning to end, shows the publisher; both Traditional and/or Self-publishing, you can finish what you start and are serious about this project.
I’m self-published and I never take my book to my editor until I have it completed. Nor do I take my book to the publisher until I have it cleaned and polished to the best of my ability, which mean going back over it many, many times.
If I could emphasize a point that Rachelle has made here: If you’re writing a memoir, you’ll need to write the entire manuscript before submitting to an agent or an editor. Memoirs use novel techniques, even if they’re officially considered nonfiction, and just because your memoir starts out great, it doesn’t mean it won’t have a slumping middle or a flat ending. Some editors will make a decision on sample chapters, but I’ve found most want to read the whole manuscript.
Wonderful post. I’ve worked in the biz for many years and started to pitch my non-fiction book. Am so glad I held back, mainly through what I believe was God’s leading. Because when I was 40,000 words into the book, with the ms. a huge structural mess and me not knowing where or what to do with it, I showed two distinct chapters to a writer friend. She gave me such freeing advice in a simple sentence: “Amy, just tell your story.”
The lightbulb went on and I realized I needed to ditch the 40,000 words and start over as a themed memoir. Am so very glad I didn’t try to line up an agent/publisher. These are two different books and this new baby will be far stronger (I think and hope and pray) than the stillborn one whose life I had to end. (I know I’m taking this metaphor too far.)
The only downer has been my lack of a firm deadline because I’ve found that my other writing/editing commitments have crowded in and it’s taking me ages to write this ms.
Thanks, Rachelle, for being willing to show us a different way to approach things.
Thanks for this Rachelle. I recently was encouraged at a writers conference to make significant changes to my novel. Your post encouraged me to make sure my novel is as close to perfect as it can be before I query agents. I assume that’s what you mean by a completed novel.
Are there any special rules if you’re writing a series? Should you have the second book near complete? I am referring to fiction, like with mystery series. Great post by the way!
Thanks for the advice, Rachelle!
You say that a published novelist does not have to HAVE a finished novel for their second. Does that go for small publishing and self-publishing as well, or is that mainly for authors published with a big publisher?
JK, a novelist with only one published book under their belt, that wasn’t a blockbuster bestseller, is still rather “unproven” and so will have a better chance at continuing their career if they try to have completed books before pitching. There will always be variations but common sense tells us that “one book doesn’t make an expert” and the more you can prove to me that you can deliver, the more I’ll be willing to take a chance on you. (And by “I” — I’m speaking as either an agent or publisher.)
Okay, thanks for the tips! =)
Oh, this is spot on. My agent told me from the get-go that I needed to write the whole thing (non-fiction) but that we would only send three chapters. Sometimes I felt very insecure doing it, because it’s my first book and I knew that an editor would change a lot of it – but I did it and we didn’t submit the proposal until the mss was finished. Now that I’m working with a publisher and an editor I’m so glad that there was something to work with and that I got MY heart on the page first. No matter how great your book is, the editor is going to suggest big adjustments – if the book had been unwritten going in, I think that I would have formed it around her opinion and left some good stuff on the cutting room floor. This way, it’s all out there and she has a much better feel for where I wanted the work to go and can help me make that happen in a better way. Maybe if I get a shot at a second AND I knew that I would be working with the same editor, I would consider submitting a proposal without the mss, but I wouldn’t consider it otherwise.
Actually, Rachelle, I had written my first Bible study completed and had taught it in several settings before I ever approached a publisher. The editor told me she requested the manuscript because it was complete and had been tested. It was published in 2007 and I just signed a contract to publish two more studies as part of a series (the first study is completely written and tested). I think you are spot on.
I’ve honestly thought, until recently, that you HAD to have the entire novel completely before sending it to a publisher.
I have planned on doing this since I decided I wanted to write.
Great post, Rachelle.
You DO need to have the whole NOVEL completed before sending it to agent or publisher. But there are a lot of authors out there who aren’t writing NOVELS. They’re writing non-fiction or memoir, which traditionally have only required proposal and sample chapters. Now I’m saying that even with those non-fiction kinds of books, people should think like novelists: finish it before selling it!
I had about 55,000 words of my 80,000-word non-fiction work complete before I began querying agents. That was 6+ of nine chapters. My rationale was there might be particular portions that could be more appropriate to send for review rather than “the first three chapters,” since to some extent each chapter could stand on its own.
Also, since I knew the book would probably be sold (if at all) on the proposal, I didn’t want to complete the book pending what the agent or eventually the publisher might say about such things as marketability.
Turned out, the most interested agents wanted a major emphasis change that I was unable to accomplish, and I ended up going with print-on-demand self-publishing. But the exercise of preparing the proposal and query, and interactions with agents who were quite constructive but ultimately passed, were both very valuable. I did make noteworthy specific changes because of their ideas, but did not change the tenor of the entire book. I was glad that most of the book was written because those changes were easy to make.
One could argue that if I had NOT had it so nearly complete, that I could have changed that overall aspect, and I’m sure that’s the case for some. For me, given my expertise and platform, it would not have been possible whether I had one chapter or nine completed. So I am content with the whole process and my decisions about it.
Thanks Rachelle for the post.
Interesting story – thanks for telling us!
Thanks for sharing that story.
I am a published writer with cover credit on a business and economics book. With that said, I have been tasked to author a narrative nonfiction book on the life of a fallen American Special Forces soldier. How does all of this apply to those of us published (writer) in one genre, now working in the crazy world of authoring narrative nonfiction? Thanks for any input. This a great conversation.
As always Rachelle, great entry. I so appreciate your transparency.
I can’t give advice for a specific situation, all I can do is speak in general terms. So in general terms, I’d recommend any author writing in a new genre to write the whole book before trying to sell it. Just like I said in the post, you don’t really know if you can do it, how long it will take, and what it will look like when you’re finished. In addition, realize that with one book published, you’re still not a known quantity. You’re probably still not even totally confident in your own ability to do this new book. So do yourself a favor, get it finished before shopping it.
Thank you for your reply!
For a novelist, finishing a manuscript, polishing and then submitting it is what separates the committed from the pretenders. Commitment is measured by perseverance, and perseverance begins by finishing your manuscript. Period. That is the first lesson in commitment as a writer. Too many pretenders speak of wanting to be a writer, but their actions belie them. Finish your manuscript. Do the work. Persevere. Commit. It pays off. The old phrase JUST DO IT rings true. If you truly want to be a writer, do it. Finish. And from that first step, continue. There is no other way. Finishing your novel is your measure of heart commitment. The rest will flow out of that blessed well.
Yes, the advice you give here is fairly conventional, except for the “write the entire non-fiction book” advice. However, that makes more sense to me for unpublished writers of non-fiction. I can absolutely understand why a publisher would be more hesitant to take on an unpublished, non-fiction writer who hasn’t yet produced a full manuscript. Also, if it’s a book I think is important, why wouldn’t I want to write the whole thing?
Does the advice about an unpublished fiction writer not seeking an agent until the manuscript is finished also apply to writer conference opportunities? I’ve pitched an unfinished novel to agents at writers conferences, and didn’t sense any response that I’d done something inappropriate.
David, we all understand that when you pitch at a conference, you may or may not have a manuscript ready. You may be just trying to get some feedback on the idea; you may just not want to miss your chance to speak one-on-one with an editor or agent. Most of us who are on the faculty of conferences don’t mind this.
But make no mistake, if we love the idea, we’re going to ask you to send a sample. And if we love the sample, we’ll want the whole thing. And if you don’t have the whole thing written, there’s nothing more to do until it’s finished. Sure you can send it whenever it’s finished, and the agent or editor will most likely remember you and they’ll still take a look. Just realize that the process stops until the MS is done.
It makes sense to have a whole book before pitching it. I am an unpublished novelist, so there’s nothing new here for me, but what you say about non-fiction and memoir seems like common sense. As an unpublished writer, I don’t think I would like the feeling of writing under a deadline, especially for my first book. Let me get the writing done first, at my pace and on my time so that I will have the chance to write all of the “junk” out, then I’d try to pitch it once it is the best I can make it. I’ve got two novel manuscripts, working on the third draft of one of them while the other is sitting in my drawer. It’s taking quite a lot of time to revise and polish, and of the 85,000 words or so that will be included, I will have written close to half a million words just to get them. No way I would want a deadline without having a complete book. I ain’t that good yet.
Though I have heard that non-fiction book ideas only need a few chapters to submit, the idea of submitting a competed ms to an agent or publisher makes a lot more sense to me for the reasons you listed. If I ever attempt non-fiction, I would definitely want to go the complete route.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and wisdom, again, Rachelle!
I can’t imagine NOT writing the whole book first. I don’t care how many books I’ve written in the past.
Life is full of surprises–and pitfalls. I want a manuscript finished before I ever present the idea.
Your post took me by surprise. I have been working on a memoir for the past 3 years but have been at it religiously for the past 10 months.
It was not until about November last year, when I clicked on your submission guidelines and saw that a book proposal and not the entire manuscript was required.
At that point I stopped focusing on the book and dedicated my energy into the proposal,I even purchased the ebook by Mary De Muth.
I always felt that the proposal and the manuscript should be completed, but the majority of the agents were saying the opposite, and well they are the experts right?
I am willing to write the entire manuscript. For me, it is worth it.
As someone who has now done it both ways, I can say that writing the whole thing first rocks. For all the reasons you mention and more. For me, had I been on a deadline with my memoir when I THOUGHT I knew what it was and what I was writing, it could never have been the right book it is today after numerous rounds of revision. Also, it’s a wonderful experience to hopefully get a contract and then not have that sinking feeling of Wow. Oh dear. They actually think I can do this. Followed by crisis. I also found that having to write the whole thing first forced me to get out of that place of striving. I had to set aside the panicked feeling that even as we speak, someone else is submitting a proposal for my same book and will take my spot. That’s a lie for a lot of reasons. And trusting God with time and process and letting go of outcomes is more spiritually healthy for me. I’m not saying I’ll never do it the other way again, but I heartily echo your advice, Rachelle. Thanks for this awesome post. You are such a gift to the publishing world. And to me.
Heather, I appreciate your input so much! You’re definitely in the position of having been there, done that – both ways. Thanks for sharing your perspective.
Mrs. Kopp, thanks so much for your words…they’ve ministered to me so much over the years! Rachelle, a very helpful post, as usual. Thanks!
Ahhh…that’s it — the thing that keeps me awake at night. Believing the lie that someone, somewhere is writing MY book. Thank you for sharing your experience, Heather. This whole post — Rachelle’s initial one and the subsequent comments — is just what I needed to hear today. I’ve seen so many query forms that ask for just a few chapters & I’ve had that as my goal. But I hadn’t thought about some of these other issues… I may have three books where I thought I had one, or a book may take me a different direction… so many books swirling in my head and on paper … more motivated to finish one now. Thank you!
From someone who has finished a couple drafts of a novel and is currently revising a memoir, this advice is very encouraging. It’s so easy to forget that success comes from working hard… and then working hard again… and again… and again…
Good advice! Regardless of what is requested, I can see the wisdom of having the full book written, even if it is non-fiction. This way editing can be done while querying agents and publishers.
At an agent session at a writers conference I attended last year, the advice sounded (for non-fiction, anyway) exactly the opposite. She said that you want to sell the agent and, subsequently, the publisher on the promise of what the book will become, and providing the entire work ruins that mystery.
Come to think of it, though, her advice and yours aren’t necessarily contradictory. She didn’t say not to write the whole thing first, just not to submit the whole thing.
Good stuff. Now I’m just waiting for the day when I unleash upon the world my Grumpy Dean’s Success Manual. 🙂
You always submit what they want – what they ask for in their guidelines. But if they love it and ask for more, it’s best if you have more to show them.
Intriguing post, Rachelle. Though fiction is my passion, non-fiction Is my strength because of my background in journalism. Five years ago I would have concluded it is foolish to write a whole book without any publisher lined up. With new programs like Kindle Singles a journalist with even a regional following can get published and with some promotion sell a lot of books. I am interested in what others think.
What a novel idea 🙂 Makes perfect sense – the only purchases I make from samples are carpeting.
My first published work was a non-fiction book about life after the death of a spouse, and I had completed the book before shopping it, which (I believe) contributed significantly to my getting a contract.
I had also completed the book which became my first published novel before my agent (you) and the eventual publisher saw it. I agree–it helps. Sort of like getting olives out of the bottle, I guess.
I have to admit, if I did send in a query with sample chapters before finishing a novel, I’d worry myself sick thinking the agent or editor might say they were interested and would like me to send the entire manuscript. So then what? I’d have to write back and say, well, I could maybe do that in another month or two…
I’d be too embarrassed. It’d be like trying to sell a thought that isn’t finished yet.
I know quite a few writers who submit queries with sample chapters before they finish the novels they are marketing. I can’t imagine how this could work for me. My first draft of my current wip is complete, but I’m still working on revisions and expect more self-editing before I’m done.
For me, I need to get to that finishing point and know every miniscule detail of the ending before I can return to the beginning and make it stronger. I don’t know how a person can make the beginning the best it can be without knowing absolutely everything about the ending first. But that could be just me. 🙂
Again, all unpublished novelists need a complete manuscript before trying to get an agent or publisher. That doesn’t mean they send it, unless it’s asked for. But it must be ready.
I’ve had three shorter romance novels published. I’m currently finishing a full length manuscript before I begin querying agents. After working on some tight deadlines, it has been nice to spend some extra time on this one. It has given me time to learn the skills I need to go from 45,000 to 80,000 words.
I did finish my novel before I contacted agents and publishers.I’ve submitted the first three chapters on request to almost a dozen places. I’ve rewritten those first few chapters several times. But I often wonder if anyone read the entire novel if that would make a difference. sometimes the gems of a manuscript are not in the first three chapters. I see the value in a completed project before submission as a new novelist. However, I also heard agents and publishers at conferences telling writers that there was no market for their story idea. Which brings up the argument of not writing the whole manuscript ahead of time.
Now with e-book it opens the door for self-pub easily enough. Here again opens a whole new discussion on how well-written is the book before it is e-published.
I like the idea of submitting whole manuscripts but doubt it will catch on with the amount of reading acquisition editors already have.
Cindy, in traditional publishing, it’s absolutely required that new, unpublished novelists have a completed novel ready to go before ever even trying to get an agent or publisher. So this post isn’t really speaking to that author.
It has been protocol to sell non-fiction and memoir based on a proposal. I’m saying that these writers should consider writing the whole book.
Also, published novelists have always been able to sell subsequent books based on a partial. I’m suggesting that if they’re looking to switch publishers, they should consider writing the whole book just like a newbie would.
I find it normal to finish the whole book before trying to publish it. I feel that whoever has to make a decision about it, needs to know what really is in there- not only the story, but also your constant voice and some valuable information you may offer to the reader. Also, sometimes, my characters want the story to go on a slightly or quite different way from what I thought it would, or there’s some insightful information I am getting from within which I didn’t expect. So yes, I believe that it is important to finish your story before sending it out, for both yourself and the other party involved.I guess that it also depends on your writing goals. To me,when the story comes, I know that I have to write it. It’s a powerful feeling, way more powerful than my worries or fears about not being able to publish it. And of course, by writing it first, you eliminate a lot of stress which is harmful to your well-being and creativity. Thanks for allowing me to share my opinion and feelings about this topic. Have a great day!
Actually Victoria, this post doesn’t really apply to you, since as an unpublished novelist, it’s expected that your novel will be complete, edited, revised and polished before you ever try to get an agent or publisher. So you have exactly the right idea!
Fabulous idea…trying to sell something that isn’t finished has always seemed counterintuitive to me. Your advice makes complete sense.
I can’t even stomach trying to submit my first novel until it’s AT LEAST third or fourth draft. At the moment, it’s taking some breathing time away from me, and me from it wile I work on my second one.
Lisa, this is exactly the attitude I wish EVERYONE had. I really only want to see novels that are 3rd or 4th draft – in other words, a great deal of effort has been put into revising and polishing it.
This answers one of the questions I had. I can’t imagine trying to submit a work that is my first draft. So, good to know agents like them polished. 🙂
That gives me a modicum of hope 😉
I saw this quote on Goodreads and it encouraged me. Maybe it will add to your “modicum of hope.” The quote is from Ovid.
“Let your hook always be cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be fish” (Heroides).
I know I needed encouragement today. Maybe the thought will help you or someone else today.
Thanks, Christine! Between that and the half-pint of delicious beer awaiting me, I anticipate a more productive evening of writing than this afternoon…
Yes, when I think I am finished with one (or stuck), I move it to the back burner for awhile and write and read something totally different. Then, when I return to the first, I am better able to edit and rewrite.
When the time is right, someone may ask, “What have you got?” and I want to be prepared, both with manuscripts and knowledge of the publishing industry.
I think it’s just good business sense to submit a completed work. Ideas are cheap. Hard work is expensive. I’m quite willing to finish a book to communicate to people around me that I’m worth the investment. If you don’t, it’s like you’re saying, yeah, I can run a marathon, even though all I’ve ever run is a mile.
…and embarrassed should have a double ‘r’ – how apt!
I have an utter terror of catching a publisher’s interest and then disappointing them by failing to deliver.
Writing a complete ms is the only way I know I’m not embarassed, even if a publisher hates it, to put my name to it
It’s worth it to finish the book just for the euphoria of knowing you finished. The first time was so amazing an experience for me as a writer, the validation and the sense of accomplishment alone were heady enough to make it addicting. Sure if I sell it that would be great, but that wasn’t why I wrote it. I wrote it because I had to. And the second one, which came much faster, like having real children I’m told, hasn’t been any less of a rewarding experience. And I’m about two weeks and 11K words from being able to write “The End” again.
For me writing the books is the reward, but I do use what I’ve learned about publishing and agent and editor expectations to help me determine which ideas get to actually percolate in my head, and then which ones get to actually be written.
The published writers I know encourage us to keep writing, and to finish books. That way when one is finally a match with an agent or editor, you’ll have a nice body of work to draw from already for the standard question “What else have you got?”
Apart from the first (which the publishers split into two books) every book I have ever had published has been accepted either on the strength of a query and sample chapters, or as a commission.
Until the last one, which I wrote in its entirety, and which I chose to write as a novel but my publishers wanted as a memoir. When I declined (to protect the name of one of the characters) I decided to self-publish.
So what am I saying? That there are no guarantees, but that I agree with you, Rachelle. Having a completed manuscript lowers – but doesn’t eliminate – the odds of rejection. At least, that way, both publisher and author can make an informed decision. It would have been so much harder for me to complete my story for self-publication had I not done so prior to rejection from my publishers.
I’m writing memoir and now you have confused me, just a little bit. I know you said that the agent appreciated receiving the completed manuscript, but if they specifically state to send only sample chapters, but have the entire manuscript ready, shouldn’t I follow the advice they provide?
Yes, always follow guidelines. But tell them what’s available.
This seems like sound advice. I can’t imagine submitting an incomplete manuscript to an agent let alone a publisher. Who can get away with such a thing? John Grisham, I suppose.
After I am finished with the follow up book to my first novel (which is yet to get picked up from queries), I shall write another on a hot topic. Any takers? No? 🙂
Published novelists typically don’t need the whole thing completed before they sell it, especially if they have a track record.
My track record is unfortunately in the shot put, but I am working on the hurdles and plan to finish the marathon!
Thank you for another educational post, Rahcelle.
Since I am a novelist, I don’t fit in the categories of writers you were addressing, but what you said about how hard it is to finish a manuscript really resonated with me. I have done five drafts of a novel. It started at over 600 pages and is now around 350. I thought that revision #5 was my final one before submitting the manuscript but no. I’ve realized that I still have to go through the novel again, not just polishing and tweaking, but actually revising. I’m still evaluating scenes–where they’re placed, whether they need to be strengthened or even eliminated. I’m glad I’m not working under a delivery deadline.
What you said about being able to give the editorial staff a manuscript that they don’t want to put down makes complete sense.
I’m so sorry about misspelling your name! I guess I shouldn’t write at this time of night.
If you are a novelist, and if you are unpublished by a traditional publisher, then you definitely must have a completed manuscript before querying.
And also, you should get used to talking in word-counts, not page counts. I actually have no idea how long your novel is when you say 600 pages or 350 pages. But if you tell me 80,000 words or whatever, I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Speaking of word count, I’ve been getting mixed advice. Do you prefer the word count that the software calculates, or do you want the average of 250 words per page? Also, it would be great if you would do a post about basic formatting for novels. There is so much conflicting information on the internet.
From what I understand from my friend in publishing is that the formatting is up to the publishing house. You cam do drop caps in arial or whatever, but the final polish is up to the publisher. I wouldn’t waste time on it, I would just write and write and write until you are done.
Rachelle please correct me if I am wrong here.
I feel a bit stupid saying this, but I had no idea you could even get an agent without a completed manuscript. I guess I just assumed you wrote it all before querying.
Despite all my industry and craft reading, I still have a raging case of the N00bie St00pids. 🙂
If you’re a novelist and you’re unpublished, then no, you probably can’t get an agent without a complete manuscript. So you’re right.
Since so many people here are fiction authors, and fiction is their whole world, they often forget there are just as many non-fiction writers out there. And non-fiction has always had different protocols.
Rachelle, I saw your blog topic here from a year ago and have an important question. I wrote a memoir, and have both a full nonfiction book proposal as well as a complete manuscript prepared. My agent, who usually sells fiction, wants to send both out together on spec. I always thought that agents send out a proposal and sample chapters, and make the full available if requested. What is the industry standard when selling a memoir? Thanks
Trust your agent! They know what they’re doing.
The best deals I’ve gotten are for clients who had a completed manuscript, and I sent the entire thing out with the proposal.
Sample chapters have been protocol for awhile, but agents are free to use strategies that might improve the odds, right?
I know this sounds corny, but the reason I write is because the words are in my head, and I want to get them out. Once they’re out, the obsessive part of me wants to see them organized and polished. And once they’re organized and polished, the anal part of me wants to see them finished.
Sure, I want to get my novel published…that’s the ultimate end. But that’s still not what DRIVES me to write.
this is true…
Yes, exactly! I am trying to finish a novel while another is burning inside me. The only way to squelch the whirlwind is to jot down the ideas for my next book, so I can complete the present one. Writing is more a release of backed-up creative energy as it is a hopeful financial endeavor!
Sigh, such an expensive hobby; yet such innovative therapy. I like the way you put it,
“Writing is more a release of backed-up creative energy as it is a hopeful financial endeavor!”
Michael, that doesn’t sound corny to me at all. I feel the same. I tell the story for the sheer joy of discovering it myself, and then when it’s complete, making it better because by the time I write The End, the characters have done their part and now that I’ve given them life, voice, history and significance, then it’s my time to get to work and strengthen the writing so the story is as clear to the reader as it was for me to unfold it.
Good summary of Michael’s summary. I usually have the climactic scene in my head (which I understand happens toward the end of the story)and need to find out who those people are and why they’re in that scene. That takes some writing because few publishers want to know only the end of the book (although we may start a new trend; send the final two chapters of the book …).
Many of you who are responding here are unpublished novelists. So nothing has changed for you. It’s always been required that you have a complete manuscript before trying to get an agent or publisher.
Oh…good point. Thanks for the clarification, Rachelle.
Exactly right, but I don’t know that it would change for me once I’m published. If a story is demanding to be written, even if my agent doesn’t think there’s a market for it, I would still write it. I’ve known multi-published authors who self-pub under a slightly different pseudonym or whatever arrangement they make with their agent for these types of books. I’ve heard good arguments on both sides, and if contracting is your priority then it doesn’t make sense to devote time and attention to something not currently marketable. But I’ve been brought up to finish what you start and for me, I’d finish it. For me, and for the characters in the story.
Although I certainly understand soliciting agents and publishers prior to completion, it is difficult for me to imagine refusing to complete a book unless it has a publishing contract.
If I had not more confidence in my work than that, why should anyone else?
Michael, I know exactly what you say here. Unfortunately for me I am so busy with kids and work and other obligations through the day that when I get to sit down and put words on the page I simply run out of time. I wish I could elbow out four hours each day but there is that horribly human thing we need called sleep that always seems gets in the way. Thanks for sharing your corniness, it appears many writers are thinking something similar. I just wish I had 30 hours in a day to fulfill this unrelenting desire!!
Let me state clearly that I’m not trying to refute you. I’m just offering some “what works for me” tips. I have three kids, 6, 3, and 3. So I barely have time to shave. But I still write. What I do:
1. I carry a little notebook with me everywhere. That way, while I’m at the office, at the microwave waiting for my lunch to cook, I can jot down ideas. (Luckily, I’m pretty good about getting the basics down, and keeping the embellishments in my head, for a brain dump later.)
2. I follow that old guideline about carving out some time, every day, to write. I find that knowing “it’s five minutes to write time” really helps me focus, and when I do write, the words just flow.
3. If you’ll tolerate a blatant commercial for my blog, I have a post where I describe how I use a digital recorder and Dragon voice recognition software to write anywhere (sometimes on the treadmill) and let technology do the mundane part. See http://michaelseese.blogspot.com/2012/01/im-walking-yes-indeed-and-im-talkin.html for details.
I hope that helps.
I agree, I carry around my Moleskine and Parker pen wherever I go just in case a break in the day occurs. I’ve filled piles of them with useful ideas in just minutes of time here and there.
I was just lamenting the fact that I wish I had 4 hours a day to write each day instead of 1 hour. Writers who write merely for the thrill of writing are always looking for more and more time to do it.
I will check out your site though. Thanks for the response.
You know, Rachelle, this advice almost strikes me as “common sense,” though I’m very glad you wrote it!
It seems to me that in the digital age, publishers would want the entire manuscript–it doesn’t cost anything more than a few kB of bandwidth, you know?
Anyway, I’m glad it’s written here, by you–you’re trusted, and very relevant to us “indie” authors, and I appreciate everything you add to the ongoing publishing conversations!
Thanks, and take care!
I wonder if many fiction writers query and send sample chapters before finishing their novels.