I was recently surprised to learn that half a dozen people I know have finished a first novel, or are darned close to it.  I have talented friends!  But when I asked if they had started hunting for an agent yet, I discovered none of them had.

This brings up the question: when do you start hunting for an agent or editor?

And the answer is: When you’re about a month away from finishing that book.

No, really.  You don’t have to finish the book before you start the Great Agent and Editor Hunt.  This seems to run counter to the advice I gave earlier, the bit where I said that no editor or agent will work with a new writer who doesn’t have a complete manuscript, but stay with me for a moment.  Here’s what’s going on.

By “finished,” I mean “polished.”  I mean “done as well as you can make it.”  The first draft is long complete, you’ve gone through a rewrite or three, and you’re working on the final, final stage, where you’re trying to decide if you should change the word “red” to “scarlet” on page 27 or maybe remove those two paragraphs in chapter twelve because they’ve been kind of bugging you but you don’t know why.

You want to start sending query letters about a month, maybe even two, before you have this final version finished.  Why?  Several reasons:

–It’ll give you a deadline.  You can’t stop writing now–you might hear back from someone at any moment, and you need to whip that book into shape.  This can help procrastinator writers.

–Researching the agents or editors and writing the queries will give you a break from your prose for a while, allowing you to return to it later with fresher eyes for that final going over.

–This is the big one: It will fill the time.  Most people you query will take some time to get back to you, and most of those responses will be rejections.  (And then you’ll have to write more queries.)  Assuming your book is indeed printworthy, it’ll still take several months to find someone who expresses interest.  In the meantime, you’re putting on the finishing touches on your book, which gives you something to do while you’re waiting.

Okay, Steven, so what happens if I query an agent and she says she wants to see the full manuscript and I’m not quite done yet?

First, pat yourself on the shoulder–you hit one out of the ballpark early on.  How cool is that?  Second, don’t panic.  The agent’s offer is good for many months.  Yes, that’s MONTHS.  Publishing moves at glacial speeds, and people are very patient.  Just hang on to that letter, finish polishing the book (since you only had a few weeks’ worth of work left on it, you won’t need long), and send it when you’re done.  No worries.

So sound that bugle call and start hunting!

–Steven Harper Piziks

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  1. Huh.

    How long does it take you to write up a synposis? I would think it would take up some time — especially if you sagely put it on the backburner to review again in cold blood, somewhat later.

  2. That’ll vary from writer to writer. It takes me a couple-three hours to put together a 3-5 page synopsis (for a book I already know the plot for). It got faster with practice, of course. Then a day or two for it to sit and another pass-through on the rewrite.

    If it takes a week or so to put together a synopsis and query letter, however, this is likely a good thing–it’ll give you a break from the manuscript so you can return to it with fresher eyes.