Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Is it ever a good idea to pitch an unfinished manuscript?

A common question asked by new authors is, do you have to finish the novel before submitting it to agents and publishers? Unless you are famous or you already have a stack of published novels to your name, the answer is yes.

Submission guidelines vary from publisher to publisher, and agent to agent. Some want the entire manuscript for consideration. Some ask for the first 3 or 4 chapters. And because many publishers/agents then take 6 months to get through the slush pile, some authors think sending in 3 polished chapters creates an opportunity to play the catch-up game.

The catch-up game goes like this.

February - Author posts 3 sample chapters to publisher/agent
February - Submission arrives at publisher/agent
February to August – Submission sits in publisher/agent slush pile blocking fire exit door
February to August - Author madly types away to finish the manuscript in the 6 months if takes publisher/agent to pick their submission up off the slush pile
August – Publisher/agent reads sample chapters and a request is made to read the finished product
August - Author has two weeks to do one last final review before sending off completed manuscript

I’m sure there are a few authors out there who have played this game. Marian Keyes reportedly sold her first book “Watermelon” based on the first few chapters. Only she didn’t play the catch-up game till after the publisher asked to see the whole novel. "What novel?" she said. She'd never planned to write one. Marian was lucky that the publisher saw something he was willing to work with. Most publishers don’t have the time to nurture talent anymore. Publishing is a business, not a mentoring program. Nowadays many authors have to be savvy to the business and are often expected to get their work appraised and professionally edited before submitting.

Back to pitching an unfinished manuscript. Should you do it? While this sounds like a perfectly timed plan to type up 3 chapters and write while you’re waiting, the result is that an author will most likely end up submitting 8,000 words that don’t even make it to the final version.

The first few paragraphs in my first draft of The Bird With The Broken Wing went like this…

Twenty feet below the No Entry sign black water danced around the rocks, leaping in and out of the mouth of the blowhole. When the waves came down upon the rocks they cracked loud as gun fire. The girl standing on the slippery edge didn’t flinch a bit. Instead, she closed her eyes and waited, like a lover bracing for a kiss. A wave shot up at her, slapping its cold, wet fingers against her cheek. She almost laughed at that.
Waves come in sets of seven building up in strength each time. Jet quickly wiped the water from her eyes and returned to staring into the blowhole. What if the next set carried the slap that was strong enough to knock her off the ledge? She’d surely sink into the abyss below and disappear into a world that might make it necessary for her to breathe underwater. Even though she was seventeen years of age, she’d never gotten over wanting to be a mermaid.

The first few paragraphs of the published version of The Bird With The Broken Wing went like this…

She was a chronic worrier—
“I have a bad feeling about this, Ben.”
—and a touch melodramatic.
“This is suicide. It’s also stupid, morally wrong, and pointless. And did I mention suicide?”
Ben wasn’t listening. He was reaching a hand inside the open neck of his shirt. She’d spent enough time with him to know he was touching the cross on the necklace that had once belonged to his dad.
“Detached, that’s how you make me feel, Ben. Like I’m watching your life through a window.”
Striking up an old conversation was hardly creative, yet the feeling of not belonging with him was just as strong now. She gave a heavy, audible sigh but Ben wasn’t taking the bait. “A bubble. I live in a bubble.”
“Relax.” Ben closed his eyes as he sucked up a deep, dusty red breath like he was meditating on Mars. “Everything will be all right.”

As you can see there is a big difference between the two versions. Theyr’e not even the same Point Of View. Halfway through the project I shifted POV and this changed the entire book!

There is a good reason why the publisher or agent asks to see the finished manuscript. What would he/she have thought if he/she had fallen in love with the first version and I sent them something entirely different. What if I had suddenly made one of the characters an alien? What if I’d changed the gender or age or genre between first and final draft?

So while it might seem like a perfect plan to pitch an unfinished manuscript and play the catch-up game, you are more likely to find this method it very detrimental to your pitch. Publishers and agents rarely agree to look at something that has already been pitched to them.

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