“You Have a Question? I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.
Q: Does my novel need to be complete when submitting a query to an agent? If not, how close does it need to be to completion?
A: Thanks for the question!
Yes. Yes! YES!
No, I’m not reenacting the deli scene from When Harry Met Sally; I’m saying what every literary agent in the world is thinking with regard to completion of a manuscript and querying.
You absolutely need to complete your novel before querying agents; not doing so could lead to big trouble.
If you’re not currently finished writing your manuscript, that means you’ve got a ways to go in terms of rewriting.
While there’s no hard and fast rule as far as how many times one must rewrite her manuscript, if you haven’t taken an ax to it at least twice since first writing the words “the end”—twice at the very least—then your manuscript isn’t ready.
Agents want your work to be as close to perfect as possible. If they are going to invest the time to read your manuscript, they want to know you’ve invested the time to edit it. If you haven’t, they’ll be able to tell—and you’re just asking to be rejected.
Rule of thumb (according to pretty much everyone): If you aren’t sick to death of your novel, you aren’t ready to query.
Now, if you are rewriting and you know exactly where you’re going with the editing (and, perhaps, you’re just getting antsy because you’re sick to death of your novel), you still aren’t ready to query.
The reason being, what if you do so and an agent asks for a partial? Or—gasp!—a full? Stranger things have happened.
If you have to write back with, “Just kidding! It’s not finished! Glad you’re interested, though. I’ll send it when I’m done,” they’ll more than likely respond with, “Just kidding! I’m not interested! Don’t bother querying again!”
That is, if they respond at all.
Agents have very little time, and if you’ve hooked them with your query, you have a microscopic window of opportunity to sell them on your work. They want to know you can finish a novel, because that shows you are professional and capable. If an agent is interested in your work and then discovers you queried before you completed it, she might feel betrayed—or, at the very least, annoyed.
Demonstrate you’ve got what it takes to follow through by writing and rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting)—then query. That way, you’ll be sending out the best possible representation of your work, and you won’t burn any bridges.