Feb 22

The Basic Five: Five Things Every Writer Should Do Before Querying A Publisher

by Hannah Holt »



1. Read at least five recently published books by that publisher and at least fifty books in the genre (recent means—in the last five years).

Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” Reading gives you a sense of the market. Is your book a good fit for the publisher’s list? Is it too similar to something they’ve already published? While you should never write to the market, you should have a basic idea of where you book fits in the market. It’s okay to write something out-of-the-box, but be self-aware about it. At the end of the day, all books need to fit into some type of box…preferably one that can be mailed to customers, libraries, and retailers.

2. Read at least five books on the craft of writing or take five classes.

However you learn best (auditory, visual, kinetic?), invest in some of that for your craft. Get to know your genre from an academic standing. Examine word count, pacing, character arc, and plotting. Know when and when not to break the rules. For example, a story 7,000 words long will not sell as a picture book. I don’t care how brilliant it is. It’s no longer a picture book at this length. Now, a picture book 1,000 words long might sell, but it will probably be difficult. How do I know this? Experience. Take advantage of someone’s hard-earned experience the easy way—through a book or class.

3. Have at least five writing peers (aka: not family members) read your story and give you objective feedback.

Does your mom love your story? Great. Now get someone else to read it. Critique groups are a great way to get free feedback on your stories. You may or may not agree with their advice but at least hear your partners out. Fresh eyes catch things that might surprise you. Did you changed your main character’s name in every chapter but Chapter 3? Did you switch your verb tense halfway through Chapter 6? Did you use the word “pretty” fifteen times on the first page. Does your side character feel like a one-dimensional stereotype? These are just some of the things an objective reader can help identify.

4. Write at least five drafts of your story.

No one writes his or her best draft the first time through. No one. Dig deeper. Think beyond your first thoughts. Rephrase. Refresh. Re-see. That’s what revision means: re-vision. Even if you end up liking an earlier draft better (and I recommend saving each draft as a separate version for this reason), you’ll have confidence knowing you have explored every option. Revise. A lot.

5. Let you story rest in the drawer for at least five weeks before submitting it.

Hooray! It’s finished! Now put it away.

Let the enthusiasm cool. Let the revision epiphany stand the test of time. Here’s how my revision roller coaster usually goes:

Week 1: This is brilliant! Ha! I’m so clever.

Week 2: Oh no! It’s terrible—the worst thing I’ve ever written.

Week 3: Hmm. It’s not as bad as I thought.

Week 4: If I did X, Y, and Z, it might be salvageable.

Week 5: I’m ready to rewrite with a fresh perspective.

If after five weeks you look back on your story and still love it—congratulations! You are ready to go on submission.

  1. Erik - TKRB

    That about sums it up. Great post! 😀

    • Hannah Holt

      Thanks, Erik!

  2. Lissa Clouser

    I agree with much of this, but there’s one thing that stands out to me as possibly unrealistic and that’s reading 50 books from your genre in the last 5 years. In some genres this is more than doable. Picture books, poetry, maybe middle grade or even YA. But are you writing epic-length adult sci-fi? If you have any life outside of writing, you’re very likely not going to finish 50 books in 5 years. It’s just not going to happen. I think it’s smarter just to say to be as well-read as you have time for within you genre, the key being making an effort at this in general. It’s also good to read away from your genre. (I still think reading about 5 books from your publisher/agent of choice is a great idea and reasonable.) Overall a great post, but keep in mind that the 50 rule won’t work for everyone! :)

  3. Hannah Holt

    “If you have any life outside of writing…” <– Therein lies the conundrum for most writers. 😉 I would expect picture book writers to read plenty-more than 50 books. I can't speak to exact numbers for all genres, but YES, read as much as you possibly can. Be patient, and do your best. :)

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