Mawi AsgedomChicago, ILJune 24, 2010
Over the last decade, I've had hundreds of people tell me they want to write a book. I've also personally advised over 50 people in hour-long consultation sessions about their book ideas.
Having seen who gets published and who doesn't, I believe it comes down to one thing. It's not having a great agent. It's not having publishing connections. It's not having the best manuscript in the world. All the above help, but none are as helpful as having: A completed rough draft.
You're probably surprised, but here's the reason: Most people will spend years talking about the book they want to write, seeking advice on it, and trying to meet an agent. But once people actually have a completed rough draft, a psychological barrier is crossed - they can imagine the finished product in their hand; they know all they have to do is edit the draft until it is a good product, and from there, pursue the next step in the publishing process. A rough draft is particularly critical for fiction, where unless you're a John Grisham, you have to have a completed manuscript before a publisher will talk to you.
A rough draft also separates the people who like the idea of writing a book from the people who have the discipline to write a book. If you ever have a friend or you yourself are interesting in writing a book, you know what to tell them: Let's see a completed draft.
Twilight author Stephanie Meyer was signed by the same editor at Little Brown that signed me, Megan Tingley. Before Stephanie had an agent, you know what she had: a rough draft. She cold-mailed the draft to an agent, was signed by that agent, and then connected to Little, Brown. Although Twilight has now sold more than 70,000,000 copies, the series started like every other book: As a draft.
Caveat: If you are writing a non-fiction book, you can sometimes get published with an outline, three strong chapters, and a marketing plan that shows a clear market for the book. So for non-fiction, you can tell your friends, "Let's see an outline, 3 chapters, and your marketing plan."