Submissions are a bit like baking a cake. You don’t want to send out your proposal or manuscript until it the toothpick comes out clean. While it may be tempting to jump the gun (yes, I am mixing my metaphors here), you want to show your work in the best possible light. If you are writing fiction or a memoir, you will need to write a full manuscript, as well as a fabulous query letter. If you are writing narrative or prescriptive nonfiction, you may be able to send out a proposal and a couple of sample chapters, along with that fabulous query letter. Regardless of what you are sending around, be sure it is the best it can be. The cake needs to have cooled, been coaxed out of the pan, iced and maybe even topped with a cherry.
How do you know when your work is ready? I strongly recommend having a board of advisers, seasoned readers or experts on your subject who will critique your work in a constructive way (you could volunteer to do the same for them). They could be your sister or husband or colleague or neighbor down the street. But they need to be the right and well-intentioned reader who can be trusted to give you an honest response without worrying about hurting your feelings. Just gathering cheerleaders or yes people who love you and tell you that everything you do is wonderful is not helpful. Tough it out. Know your readers, where they are coming from, and how to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of their comments.
Polish, polish, polish.
Before sending your work to a literary agent, do lots of research. Check websites and other online resources that are readily available to find the right fit. Always check the agent’s website. Does this agent represent work that is similar in sensibility or genre to what you are writing? What are the submission guidelines? Does the agent prefer email or hard copy? Don’t cold call. Do follow the guidelines precisely.
Finally, I love a cake in a box with a bow. In other words, when you send out your work, make it look as professional and appealing as possible. Then, at least there’s a chance that the agent will not be able to resist at least a small taste. And that could lead to consuming the whole slice of cake and asking for more.