Fiction Workbench

Blog of the Fiction Fix-It Shop

Do You Need a Finished Manuscript?

Posted by Meredith in Writing Advice (October 1, 2010 at 10:00 am)

Another great question from an Advanced Fiction Writing Blog reader, this time about whether an unpublished writer needs a finished manuscript before submitting a book proposal.

Al asks:

In the past, I’ve read that, at least for a new novelist, you need to write the whole novel before contacting editors and agents. Do you think that’s still the case, or does a new novelist have a shot at getting a contract based on a proposal?

Unfortunately, Al, needing the full manuscript first is even more the case than ever before. I mean, sure, there’s always the lightning-bolt-from-heaven chance that an unpublished writer will get contracted off a proposal. It happens. It’s the stuff of publishing legend.

But in today’s economy (are we sick of hearing statements prefaced with that phrase yet?), even multi-published authors are sometimes finding it difficult to get contracted based on just a proposal. Publishers are extremely risk-aversive at the moment. It’s much, much better for an unpublished writer to have a completed manuscript in hand before trying to send out proposals. This lets the publisher or agent know that you can carry out an entire story.

There are a few agents I’ve met who prefer to see a proposal before the manuscript is finished, but that’s a very individual thing, and I wouldn’t rely on that as a general rule.

I know it’s a hassle, and it’s a risk of time and energy for the writer to write on spec like that, but it’s the reality we’re dealing with right now. There are some benefits, though. Nothing brings out writerly anxiety and creative block like a looming deadline. And without the pressure of that deadline, often your writing will be much higher quality. (There is a reason so many debut books are fabulous, and then the quality declines after that–the writer doesn’t have the gift of time with subsequent books as they did with the first.)

On the other hand, it requires greater discipline to get a manuscript finished without a deadline or even the promise of one. But if you can overcome that problem, then writing on spec needn’t be a terrible thing. It could actually be a positive thing.

Best wishes to you with your project, Al!

Got a fiction writing question? Ask me here at the Fiction Workbench, or over at the Advanced Fiction Writing Blog.