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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Indecision about his next step plagues book inc director and novel writer J. Greg Phelan. Should he keep revising or start querying?

By J. Greg Phelan

November 30, 2023

This year, I’ve spent a lot of time revising my novel. The book is close to where I want it to be. I feel good about it.

My trusted readers, all awesome book inc writers, have been encouraging, too. They have been nudging me to start sending out queries. Just do it, they say. I’ve been telling myself I am ready. I will do it. To muster the will and courage to face the gut punch of rejection, not just for my own sake but for the benefit of all of us in our writing community. Each time one of us takes a step forward, we all rejoice in our success. And get a burst of energy to keep going—one for all, all for one.

Earlier this fall, in our Book Submission Lab (BSL), I drafted my query letter and synopsis. I honed my first pages. I updated my list of agents. I got super helpful and encouraging feedback, revised my submission package and plan, and felt good about that, too. I set a goal to send out a few queries before Thanksgiving.

But before I did, I decided to do one more read-through of the novel just to make sure the prose was perfect. Because that’s what industry pros say to do, including the many incredible guests we had in BSL, like Tod Goldberg, Mark Sarvas, and Cristina Spencer. They underscored that before you send out your work, it is essential to make it as flawless as possible, especially your first 50 pages. Since I’d just completed two painstaking revisions, I was confident I could breeze through a read-aloud revision in a few days. I might even enjoy reading my novel straight through and take pride in my accomplishment.

And so, full of good cheer and optimism, I printed out and read Chapter One, pen in hand, only to discover the opening I’d been working on for so long (for years!) still had plenty of glitches, the kind you only discover reading aloud. Yikes!

After fixing the glitches, and also adding some new prose to fill a hole or two, I printed out my first chapter and read it aloud a second time. There were still some glitches (always are after you touch your manuscript), but less. Phew. I was making progress, however slow. I made those edits and printed out and read the chapter aloud a third time. I discovered a few typos to fix, but that was all. The prose was much improved. It went down easy, getting me closer to the ultimate goal of making my readers feel they are in good hands.

Wow, that felt good. And why not? I made the chapter much better.

But that was just Chapter One. And it took me three days to read aloud and revise three times. And this novel has 36 chapters. Doing a read-aloud revision of all of them would set me back not days or weeks but months. How was this happening? I was positive the book was in decent shape to begin with. My readers seemed to concur. What was I doing? Was this just more resistance, giving me a reason to avoid querying? I do hate querying. I’d much rather be writing. And I hate getting rejections even more. No matter how much I intellectually understand they are part of the process, I feel a visceral feeling of hopelessness when someone says no. If I keep going with the read-aloud revision, I could postpone this unpleasantness for a long time.

Which made me wonder, maybe doing a months-long read-aloud revision wouldn’t be so bad after all. I’d improve the novel, no doubt about it. And I wouldn’t have to worry about getting rejections for a while anyway. A win-win, right?

Hold on. Just because it took me three days to revise Chapter One doesn’t mean every chapter would take that long. In fact, I breezed through three read-alouds of Chapter Two today in only a few hours. And that chapter is now much improved, too.

So maybe it wouldn’t take months to do the read-aloud revision, but only a single month or even a few weeks. I’d be querying in no time. And isn’t taking a little extra time to make the book the best it can be worth it?

I think it may be. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing some incredible writers, including two of my all-time favorites, Paul Harding and Alice McDermott. And they do take the extra time. No doubt about it. Not just weeks or months but years. Whatever it takes to get the prose exactly right. And they set the bar extraordinarily high for themselves. The highest.

So what’s another few weeks or months? I’m so close; why compromise? My favorite writers wouldn’t. In fact, maybe their stick-to-it-ness is the key to their success. And absolutely essential to realizing the potential of their art.

OR: Maybe this penchant for endless revising is resistance. Just another ploy to avoid being rejected. (Have I mentioned I really hate that?)

I should just do it. Be strong. Put myself out there. Send out a few queries now …

And so my thoughts go round and round as The Clash song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” plays on repeat in my head, especially this couplet:

This indecision’s bugging me (Esta indecisión me molesta)
If you don’t want me, set me free (Si no me quieres, librarme)

Set me free is right!

So here’s what I’m going to do (bulleted for extra accountability and officialness):

  • Do the rest of my read-aloud revision with focus, purpose, and alacrity!
  • Meanwhile, sneak in a submission or two, including to an indie publisher who has an open reading period coming up.
  • Shoot to query in full force by the first week in January, if not sooner.

Updates to come!

J. Greg Phelan

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.