Give Your Manuscript “Agent-Ready” Polish
You’ve spent years on your novel, memoir, biography or essay collection and the time has come to show it to agents.
Or has it?
In her new book, The Author’s Checklist, agent, editor and author Elizabeth Kracht suggests the answer might be “not quite yet.”
“There is significant gap” she writes in the introduction, “between manuscripts that writers believe to be ready for publication and those that agents or other publishing professionals do.”
Sadly, believing our work is ready to submit when it is not results in rejections out-of-hand; our precious manuscript gets tossed out before the agent or publisher finishes the first page. We may have written the blockbuster of the year, but even a few minor mistakes and omissions lands it in the slush pile.
The problem is time. Kracht writes, “Agents often don’t have time to give feedback because of the sheer volume of submissions they receive.” Follow any agent on Twitter for a while and you’ll see the truth of this; agents receive thousands of queries each year. Most agents diligently review those queries because they really are looking for that great new work. But they can only manage a glance at each submission before making that difficult decision to request more pages or give your work a pass.
Agents often don’t have time to give feedback because of the sheer volume of submissions they receive.
This means a simple blunder on page one can make all the difference. Overused words, filter words, distracting dialog tags — any of these can mark your work as not ready, and the agent hasn’t the time or resources to help you bring it along.
So, Ms. Kracht has taken all her experience from an extensive career in publishing and wrapped it in a concise collection of writing advice gems, The Author’s Checklist.
This is no mere collection of handy tips. This is the A-to-Z of what to do, and not do, to ensure your manuscript will get the attention it deserves. Using it diligently before you submit your work will save you from needing to hire expensive editors and still give it the polish it needs to capture the attention of agents and publishers.
Alphabetically, from Acknowledgements to World Building, each short chapter offers a concise overview of the challenges and opportunities you face to make your work stand out.
This is followed by easy-to-remember checklists for that area. The text of each chapter provides some of the most clear and focused explanations of the writing craft I have ever found. The checklists encapsulate that advice into a series of questions you should ask yourself about your work. The overviews and questions prompt the writer to think carefully about the writing process and decide what actions will result in the polished manuscript that gets accepted.
Example at random — Chapter Length. I’ve seen this question raised many times in writing forums and blogs: How long should my chapters be? Ms. Kracht can tell you, from extensive experience, what will and won’t pass muster with most agents:
“For most projects, both fiction and nonfiction, a good rule of thumb is to keep chapters to 15–17 double-spaced pages for fiction and memoir, and about 20 pages for nonfiction.”
Boom. Question answered. While she acknowledges that there are always exceptions, hers is advice on what most agents are looking for. The checklist at the end of this short section drives the idea home:
- Are your chapters approximately 15–17 manuscript pages?
- Are your chapters more or less the same length across your book?
- Have you identified short chapters that you could combine to create longer chapters of substance?
- Do all your chapters include a balance of narrative, dialogue, setting, characterization, and plot?
One way The Author’s Checklist has already helped me is in creating a tailored index of my most egregious and common mistakes. I have a growing list of problem areas and solutions I can apply to any manuscript. It focuses my attention on my unique set of weaknesses. (Hint: Her section on “Show versus Tell” is already dog-eared and highlighted.) Each time I use it, I find new problem areas and squash them. Each new application of her advice makes my prose that much better.
Every writer who cares about craft has a selection of resources on their desk: Dictionary, Thesaurus, style guide, perhaps Margaret Atwood’s On Writers and Writing or Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. Elizabeth Kracht’s The Author’s Checklist belongs on that shelf, nestled cheek-by-jowl with past greats. It’s a working book, a fine tool to be used on each and every manuscript, to give it the shine it deserves just before we send it out into the unforgiving world of publishing.