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Face Off Friday: Should You Query a First Novel?*

 Today I'm asking one of the more hotly debated questions in the writing blogosphere - should you put your "baby" (first novel) in a drawer for a while or should you send it out to the world once you're done editing? Some say that you should not query your first book until you've written a second.

(It's too soon if) It's your first novel. No matter how hard it is to hear and follow this advice, it's probably the best advice I'll ever offer: write a second novel before you query on the first one. You'll learn so much while writing that second novel that you'll go back and either revise or discard Novel #1. AND you won't have all the baggage from those damn form rejections to weigh you down --agent Janet Reid
Others argue that it's silly to do that, some first novels get published. You've done all that work, so go for it. So, I thought this would make a great debate for a Face Off Friday.
I have to say that in my case, I queried my first novel too soon. It was before I was blogging, before I had quality beta readers, before I knew what the heck I was doing. (Although, I thought I did.) I had three biggie agents request fulls, which were eventually met with rejections (albeit one was personalized and encouraging.)  After I received these a few months after querying, I already knew that my book needed work. Since querying, I had learned so much. I now want to smack myself in the head that I jumped too soon on sending out those letters.
I've since parked that YA under the bed with plans to completely rewrite it one day. And, thankfully, my second novel turned out much better (at least based on publisher interest and contest wins.)
But patience is my least favorite virtue and is often my downfall. So I understand when others want to do the same as I did. And perhaps they will have better luck than me. But here are some points to consider:
Querying Now vs. Later

In defense of immediate gratification...

  • You've worked really hard on your novel and the thought of not seeing what it could do out there is driving you crazy
  • Some first novels sell
  • You've revised the book ten ways til Sunday so it's not "technically" your first effort
  • Publishing follows trends and your vampire/fairy/angel/werewolf book may not be "in" if you wait too long
  • You can't focus on a second book unless you know if this one is going anywhere
  • Your family has been hearing about your writing this book, now they keep asking you about the results
  • You love this book and can't bear the thought of tucking it away for a while

For love of patience...
  • If you write a second, you will have learned so much more that you will look back and see the flaws in your first effort that you missed the first time
  • It's already too hard to keep up with trends since publishing is a slow process, so you have to take comfort in that if it's a great book, it will still be great in six months
  • You'll have time to detach yourself from the first book and have a more unbiased opinion later
  • You won't burn bridges with agents
  • If one book sells, you'll be able to tell the agent you have something else already finished and ready to go as well
Alright, so I'm picturing myself reading this a year and half ago. I would have read the points for patience and been like, yeah BUT BUT BUT... and figured out all the ways that this did not apply to me.

So, I know that some of you are probably doing the same thing. Therefore, I'll include a little checklist to look over if you want to query your first novel and know that you're not going to be able to wait until you finish a second.

If you can't wait, make sure...

  • You have read writing books, blogs, etc. on a regular basis.
  • Each important character has a clear internal and external Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. And by clear, I mean you do not have to explain it to others who have read your book.
  • Your novel is high concept (if that's what you're going for) so you can boil the plot down to a sentence.
  • Your opening chapter hooks the reader and is not loaded down with backstory.
  • You are able to write a 1-2 page synopsis. If you can't, there may be a problem in the book (according to Janet Reid).
  • Your novel has been read by at least three beta readers/crit buddies who are NOT your personal friends or family members. You need people who are writers themselves, have knowledge of the craft, and aren't afraid to be honest.
  • Even if you're not writing a second novel yet, let the manuscript stew for at least a month to gain some distance from it.

Alright, so that's my take on it. The links I included are former posts on all these issues. Feel free to disagree as always.

So what's your opinion? Should you follow the path of patience or jump into the shark tank? For those of you who have more than one novel under your belt, how do you see your first novel now? And has anyone out there had success with first novel querying?

**This is a revised reposting of an Oct. 2009 post.  My kiddo is sick and I'm running on two hours sleep, so I didn't think I could be coherent enough today to come up with the post I had planned.  However, I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts on this issue.**

**Today's Theme Song**
"Patience" - Guns 'N Roses
(player in sidebar--go ahead, take a listen)


Reader Comments (39)

I definitely queried my novel too early, but then again, it was my second novel. I don't really think of it as my second, though, because the first was a 800-page (double spaced) project that I worked on for a bazillion years in high school. That doesn't count. I never really edited it.

I think you can query your first novel, but take a LONG time in getting it ready. And you can always query the same agent who rejected you with your next project; they just don't like you querying about the one they already rejected. So you get rejected. Big deal. It happens to the best of us. Throw it out there and see what happens.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKM

KM, I agree that there isn't too much to lose by getting a rejection--you can query them again on a different project. However, when I said burn bridges, I meant for that project. If you query novel #1 to your dream agent, they say no, then a few months later you figure out the issues and have revised novel--you can no longer send to that agent you really wanted because they already turned down that book.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

I haven't queried yet. My first two novels are ones that will never see the light of day. Honestly. And I'm okay with that. (Well, getting there.) My current WiP, which will be the third novel I've written, might be the one I query with. I think that it's more amenable to revisions, will come out cleaner (meaning fewer plot holes) than my last two, and while still requiring work to polish and perfect won't require as much as either of my previous novels.

So I guess you'd put me on the patience side of the argument.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie McGee

This is a great thing to discuss Roni. I sent 2 queries for my first novel before I realized it wasn't ready (and it never would be). My second novel got me my agent. So I should be firmly in the "query later" camp.


There are a few manuscripts I've beta read that are first novels and are AWESOME. I think the thing is, the writers who hit a home run the first time usually spend YEARS getting it right. They write and rewrite until it is perfect. They aren't in a hurry to get it out into the world. They just want to make it the best it can be. I don't have that kind of patience (and I didn't like my first book enough to try), but if you do and if you have put in the necessary time and effort to write an awesome book, whether it be your first or 100th, I think you should query.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie

I have to say that in my case, I queried my first novel too soon. It was before I was blogging, before I had quality beta readers, before I knew what the heck I was doing.

I think you hit the nail on the head right there.

I've been writing since I was twelve. My "first novel" was rewritten over and over, three times as a teenager, another three or four as a young twenty-something, and though eventually I got to the point where I was able to submit to agents (and one small company even asked for rewrites) I still had a *lot* to learn.

When I sat down and wrote the second novel, it was with a lot more experience at my back. And I *still* have much to do, revision-wise.

My point is, when we've written our first, we have so much faith in it. It really is like a first love: very hard to let go of or fall out of love with. No, we don't know any better. So we often try to enter the publishing field before we're ready.

A second novel is vital, if only as a learning tool. Yes, some people have success with their first book, but there are so many other factors in play there. Most of us need the practice (and the learning time) to get it right.

And there's no guarantee that I'll be successful with this second one, either, but I feel way more experienced than I did with the first one.

That first novel of mine will see the light of day eventually, but we're on a break right now. We'll probably be on break for another few years. Hopefully by the time I return to it, I'll *really* know what the heck I'm doing. :)

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMoira Young

Really depends on whether you're first novel is any good, doesn't it?

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTravener

Agreed 10,000%! I wrote my first novel, edited it once, and then queried it maybe 20-something times. A bunch of query rejections and two rejections on requested partials later, I realized it was too soon.

So I wrote a second book, just for fun, and although that second book isn't anything I'd want published, my writing mechanics drastically improved. I'm currently going back and editing Book #1, which I may or may not query, but I'm thankful that I stopped and wrote a second book before querying too much, too fast.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShelley Sly

I took the slow road. I wrote my first book, got some critique and sent it to an editor I'd met at a conference.

Then I wrote my second book and realized my first book wasn't ready. (Yes that editor eventually rejected it.) My second book I queried very little. The feedback I got said the writing was good but the story was dated.

So, I wrote my third book and rewrote my first book and queried them at the same time, lol. I got personalized rejections for both. I revised book number three, queried it and found an agent. Now I'm rewriting that first novel because I love the premise.

So, should you query that first novel. I guess I would (but not until you've done a lot of revision and some trusted readers think it's in the ballpark quality-wise) because I received some valuable feedback from querying that first novel and one request for a revision, and two requests to see future work. And maybe if I'd kept querying (I think I only queried 25 agents) I may have found representation then.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

I wish I hadn't queried my first two novels--I think I'm hitting my stride with novel #3. Problem is at the time I thought they were great (I know better now). But by getting your work out there, you do learn how to query, you get to know which agents respond and which don't (and perhaps get an idea of their tastes, depending on if they've asked to see partials/fulls), get used to the rollercoaster emotions of querying. So it is experience in the the school of hard knocks.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMJR

Great advice! I'm not to the querying stage in any way, shape or form. I think it's important to give each of your novels the credit it deserves and remember that any of them can succeed just as much as any of them can fail. I'm a gut-instinct type of person so we'll just have to see what my internal warning system says when the time for querying arrives.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterE. Elle

Had I know six months ago what I know now I would have waited. I'm well into book three and the first has literally been reworked from the foundation because of what I have learned. I'm almost ready to query it again! Experience is everything, I think. You will get better with time, I know I have. It's hard not to jump in the tank, but I'd advise against it.

Excellent post!


April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJustineDell

Thanks for all the great advice! I love it when bloggers give tips like this, because it always helps to read them.

Like pretty much all writers, my goal is definitely to publish my work someday. But I'm more about the path of patience. I'm focusing on just finishing the stories I'm working on, and then I figure I'll worry about getting it published later.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNeurotic Workaholic

Wonderful advice. I got representation for my first novel right away, but in the end, it didn't sell. I think it might have made it if I'd given the book another polish before the agent sent it around. (I cringe when I look at at that ms. now.)

I think if more writers approached their first novel as a "practice" piece, they might learn more and have more fun too. It also would keep the query pipelines from being so congested with unpublishable books.

The saddest thing is when uninformed newbies self-publish a first novel or get duped by an outfit like PublishAmerica. Then all their beginner's mistakes get hung out there in public and their chances for a career are much diminished.

Our older, wiser selves would be so much happier if we could keep those fledgling attempts hidden away until we can build the expertise that comes from years of writing. (But those first efforts are often useful for mining for short stories, so all is not lost.)

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne R. Allen

Technically, I plan to query the first novel that makes it to that stage. The first that has been rewritten and edited enough for me to consider having a query sent out. Will I have a second as well, of course.

I started this book, the one I'm sure will be the first to query, back in 2007. It took a long time to write with many breaks and during 2008 I wrote a different novel. This year already I have another novel draft finished and about 3 others in the works. Yay for multi-tasking.

It's not the first novel I ever started either. I have one from nanowrimo 2006 when I only wrote a few thousand words. Still have those words but haven't gone back to it. Also, have sections of a novella that get added to every now and then.

So, in a way I'm going to query my first but in a way I'm not, at the same time. lol

Great topic to post. All the points made sense and I appreciate all the information. :-D

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDawn Embers

This is a great post. I just blogged this morning about How to Know If You're Querying Too Soon ) and I'm going to put a link to this post in the post script. You've done a fantastic job on the round-up!

Great question Roni, and important topic. For me I don't have much choice because I'm not sure I have more than one book in me (though it will probably be a trilogy).

That being said I definitely started querying too early. It is good to move on to something else to let it simmer and then find the time to perfect it. For me blogging was better than starting another book because I've learned a lot more, met a lot of great writers, and I'm not sure I want to write other books if I can't get this one published anyway.

Thanks for covering an important topic Roni!" rel="nofollow">Today's guest blogger is The Alliterative Allomorph!

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Rush

What a great topic. I never queried my first novel (I wrote it when I was a teenager and just wanted to see if I could actually write a whole book).

I ended up querying the third novel I wrote and I sent it out way too early. But at the time, I thought it was okay. That's why it's so helpful to have critique partners and follow writer blogs and agent blogs so you can see the competition and know what you're getting into and if you're prepared.

In my opinion, I'd say send out the first novel if you've revised and edited it. If you've worked a little on another piece as well, and if you've had at least one or two other writers (not family or friends) take a look and give you some good feedback. Most first novels won't be ready and it doesn't hurt to polish it as much as possible.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

I never queried my first two novels. Although, neither of them is officially finished either. I never got crits or anything. I do hope to come back to them someday. But, I know my second (my first YA novel) is simply too long. Apparently I was channeling JK Rowling with all the subplot going on. It's YA and just all drama - and it's over 100,000 words - WAY, WAY too long. I hope to go back and remove all the subplot and just stick to the protag, antag and love interest. All the other subplots really don't matter. It would probably cut it down to like 60,000 maybe. Anyways, that's my plan.

I am currently working on the first manuscript that I plan to pursue publishing but I have to get over my own fear of crits before I can do that. If I feel it's not strong enough, I'll just work on my next idea.

I do feel that, after finishing, you should let the book sit for a while (like 3 months or more) while you prep for your next book. Then come back and edit and revise, then get readers. All before you think about sending out a query. That's just my opinion though.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiz H. Allen

Thanks for this post Roni. This is a question that is pressing on me right now. This post along with another one today on "self-editing when is enough enough" (sorry I don't have the link) really helped.

I am very close to querying my first novel. I keep waiting to fix little things. It is my first, but I've put it away several times over the last 5 years to write other things. The thing is, I'm in love with this story. I've watched it change and grow better over the years. It is a book I would read--that was my goal in the first place.

Right or wrong, I will query it and then pull out one of my other drafts to work on and try to forget about it. ??? I know that won't be possible, but oh well.

Ooo, which reminds me. Do you ever critique query letters on here?

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCharity Bradford

I'm not quite sure. For me, this is technically my 3rd novel (I'm not even going to count the stories I wrote in high school).

However, the first one I wrote was laughable and didn't really have an end to it, so I'm not sure it counts... My second one I only got 17,000 words in before I realized the plot needed major work. So would I ever query those two? No. Heck no.

However, I will query my current WIP once I'm done. I suppose, in the technical sense of the word, this will be my first complete novel. But that's where I have a problem with the term "first novel/story." I realized with both of my other stories that they weren't good enough to even bother finishing. Does that mean they don't count as my first books because they weren't finished? Because I will NOT query those. But I will query my new one.

In any case, I have received glowing feedback on my WIP so far, so I'm confident I can keep that up throughout the whole thing.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie Murphy

i think it all depends. Some work may be ready to go.
I'm on my second novel so no worries for me. But i have leaned TONS since that first novel.
I can't wait to start my third novel and apply everything #2 taught me.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFalen

The only thing that will happen if you query too soon is that you'll get a "no."

On the other hand some famous first novels include: Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles, F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, Lauren Weisberger's, The Devil Wears Prada; Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, and I do believe, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

We should all be so graced with excellent first novels...and believe in ourselves.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBish Denham

I learned so much from my epic fail of a first novel. I learned about the industry and agents as I went, and was completely prepared and knew what to expect for my second novel.

The best part about the first novel submission (for me anyway), was getting comfortable with rejection. It didn't take long for me to realize that my first novel wasn't that good. And I was okay with that. It was my first.

But if I had waited and submitted my second novel first, it would have been heartbreaking to have put in twice as much work and still receive rejections. Instead, I was able to be optimistic, telling myself that I got a much more positive response for Novel #2, which means I must be getting better.

Just my $.02

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEmily Casey

I am not finished with my first novel yet. I'm still working on it. It's been three years and I'm constantly revising and learning.

(I should say, this is my first *finished* novel. I have two that never were completed, because I realized halfway through that they were hopeless.)

I definitely plan to query this one, but only when I'm absolutely sure it's as good as I can make it. I see no point in putting it aside and writing something else.

How can the next book be better, if I haven't worked out the kinks in this one yet? And why would I start the next book already, when I don't know whether the first will succeed?

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristine H

Aww, I hope your son gets better soon.

April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPlamena

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