Some easy ways to tell when your book (probably) isn't ready for submission
It can be agonizingly hard to identify and fix the causes of proposal and/or manuscript unreadiness. At least the symptoms are mercifully easy to spot?
Once an author has secured a decent literary agent, what they need to do in order to get to “yes” with a commercial publisher ain’t all that complicated.
Book deals are pretty straightforward. If we’re talking nonfiction, author and agent must submit a book proposal that demonstrates the following three things:
One has enough material to write a whole-ass book
One has thought rigorously about how to structure that material around an original, valuable, marketable argument
One has the expertise and access to sell this book to the large, finite, book-buying audience that will obviously be interested in this book by this author
Fabulous writing is a big plus, but in most genres, it’s not a requirement.
If we’re talking fiction, author and agent must1 submit a full manuscript that demonstrates the following:
Author writes real good
Pages are gripping (usually thanks to the plot) and emotionally transformative in some way
There is a large, finite, book-buying audience that just loves books like this
All of that is simple enough, right?
BAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Simple like Antarctica is simple, yes. Not a whole lot of people down there in Antarctica. The landscape aesthetic is pleasingly crisp and clean.
BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN ANTARCTICA IS EASY TO GET TO, DOES IT, MR. SHACKLETON.
The real trick isn’t knowing what Antarctica looks like; it’s figuring out how to get there without dying or resorting to cannibalism. It can take months to years to do this. And in the case of novels vs. polar expeditions, it’s not always a concrete packing list, either.
I imagine it’s not entirely clear to you why your novel’s readers are getting bored or why the argument in your memoir still won’t come together. The fixes you need might be something simple—an editor telling you, “put this scene here”—but they are more likely something horrible and abstract, such as “you need to stop confusing emotional confession with connection.”
Things like this can be quite difficult, traction-less, and painful to work through. I mean, where does one even begin? If the problem is abstract and emotional vs. grammatical and mechanical, where does one start to drill down? Especially if you’d like to get this book deal sooner than the dozens of years in therapy some of these problems will require to process fully?
I can’t spare you the personal responsibility of answering the questions above. Nor can I spare you the pain. But I CAN at least help you figure out where to begin drilling.
Every lobster trap of dysfunction in the ocean of editorial development can be identified by a surface buoy or two. These buoys don’t tell us how to open the trap and get the lobsters out, but they do at least indicate that one exists.
Therefore: please allow me to put on a Fair Isle sweater, captain’s hat, and fake beard. Yar: I am ready. Board me boat and enjoy my tour of the buoys in this trap-filled sea.