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“Flowers spring forth in full blossom on the first try; they may be the only thing to do so. Writers don’t.”  -Me

I recently observed a lengthy exchange of posts on a well-respected writing internet site where a first time author had posted a query letter for his 135,000-word novel. The writer asked for comments and suggestions; he received them. Most were constructive, one or two were perhaps hard. The letter was fraught with grammatical and content issues. One respondent suggested the writer’s use of semicolons was criminal; needless to say, the author took umbrage with the remarks.

I wrote him a reply sympathetic to his situation and explaining that if he is going to seek publication he is opening himself to all manner of criticism by the gatekeepers. Better to have another writer tell you a query lacks grammatical form and an appropriate content shape than receive no reply or the standard ‘not a fit for our agency.’

When Are We Ready?

Any bullet list of steps to preparing your manuscript for submission, and they are bountiful, will state very near the beginning that the manuscript must be polished. Even self-publishing houses will caution the writer about the quality. I understand they are also looking to market their editing and development services, too. It’s a business; the writer needs to act like a business, not an artist. As a matter of business, 130,000 word first novel may just be bad business! It’s too long; paper costs are high. I have read agent admonitions about length where they require an explanation of length if the work eclipses 100,000 words.


The dilemma is very real. If the manuscript is not grammatically free of errors and well developed, it’ll never get passed the agent’s nose. If you are self-publishing and the book you produce at considerable expense to you is still grammatically and developmentally challenged, readers will not buy it. This is not to say that every reader understands passive voice, point of view, participles and dangling what evers! The whiff of competent story-telling is an aroma that is as universal as story. If it’s not there, people will steer clear. Thus, it appears that one must have a sufficient command of language to get past a gatekeeper, or get past the reader without spending an arm and leg on editing services. The writer that can do it all, write and edit, is more strongly positioned.

Some high end packages at self-publishing houses charge as much as $15,000+ with editing and design functions to publish your book! They may offer some marketing outlets, but the writer is basically on his own, unless he wants to lay out more cash for marketing and review services.

The Sniff Test

Unless you spend a considerable sum on editing, your manuscript will go to market with a huge disadvantage. How do we know we’re ready? Certainly one avenue is for literary-minded friends to read and comment. Friends that are not necessarily literary minded but who regularly read your genre are a good sampling for taste. Does it pass the sniff test of a frequent reader?

There are several publishing houses that require the book to be analyzed. Abbott Press, a subsidiary of Writer’s Digest, reviews all books. If the content is questionable they will refund your contract price. They also note superior quality with a special seal. Other self-publishing houses offer similar opportunities; my guess is the offer is a marketing tool for other services. Does that mean the service is bad? Not necessarily. One must have some information about who is doing the editing and their credentials. A lover of romance may have unpracticed eye and ear for what is happening in mystery or suspense. If the editor has no use for Westerns, he or she may do you a disservice. Buyer beware; or, polish your writing skills.

Simple Math

There are axioms about competence. A writer posted recently that she attended a conference some years ago because one of her favorite authors was speaking. An audience member asked how long it took to get published. His reply was “After writing about a million words.” She was shocked and that one comment put her own experience in perspective: she was far from ready!

There is another axiom called the 10,000 hours theory, in which mastering a skill requires some 10,000 hours of practice. What does this mean? 10,000 hours represents 417 24-hour days of writing practice. It might represent 1250 8-hour writing days, or approximately three and one-half years of 8 hour writing days. Where do you fit into these measurements, either the million words or the three and one-half years of 8-hour writing days?

I’m not there, believe me.

The writer of the 130,000 word first novel, and I actually believe it was a first draft to boot, should not be surprised by the rejections and the criticism. He is trying to run a marathon after only practicing a few 100 yard dashes. Common sense is a rare commodity, especially when thinking about hopes and dreams. It’s easy to project ourselves as the winner of a lottery and the wonderful things we’d do with the subsidy. It’s quite another thing to consider the mathematical possibilities of winning…

I have just completed a line edit of my novel which is in its third incarnation. It is very much improved and trimmed to 82,000 words; but, my own sniff test suggests… Still not there.

Flowers spring forth in full blossom on the first try; they may be the only thing to do so. Writers don’t.