Chuck Wendig just did a Terrible Minds post telling authors not to "pre-reject" their work, i.e., to finish their novel, say it's not good enough, and then dump it into the drawer or the trunk on top of all the other not good enough thing. And maybe I'm reading too much into what Chuck says, or maybe I should understand that it should be implied that Chuck is taking a position really far on one side as a counterweight and not as an actual "position" position. But as I'm reading his post, he doesn't say it's ever right to take a manuscript and put it into the pile inside the drawer inside the trunk.
And that's wrong.
I'm going to reject his thesis in two ways that are flip sides of the same coin, the you coming to me, and the me taking your manuscript to the world.
In both instances, I note the old, true and wise saying "you've got one chance to make a first impression."
If I as an agent look at three or four bad books by an author, I am not likely to sign up to look at another. I'm not saying "never." It's possible to see that an author's on a growth and learning curve which I want to encourage. But even for that to happen, the books do need to get to a point where they look interesting. It can't be 60th percentile work or 20th percentile work. You need to be in the 80th or 90th or 95th percentile.
You can't count on sending me everything you write, even the things that not even you think are good enough, and expect me to be around for long enough to get to the thing that's finally good.
I'm not saying you need to be perfect. There are many authors on the JABberwocky list that sent me multiple novels before we found the one we could market. One of the things I'm good at is spotting that little something extra in an OK novel that helps me figure out which authors have a higher ceiling they can reach and which are capping out at OK. As examples, both Brandon Sanderson and Peter V. Brett sent me other novels that pre-date their "first" novels.
There's a way in which Chuck Wendig could be right. The majority of my clients, I expect, have this stage in every novel they work on where they hate the book. And then they grow out of it. If you're a new novelist and you have that stage and it goes on too long, maybe "pre-rejection" will be a bad thing.
However, it is more often the case that the new novelist is inclined to be generous in appraising their own work. On the whole, if an author writes a first or third or eight novel and decides one or all need to count as practice, that judgment is probably correct.
Hence, I think there is nothing wrong with coming up to Joshua Bilmes, an agent that can help get your book out to the world, and saying "out of everything I've written, this is the first book I think is good enough to send out." You'll be joining a long line of distinguished authors who have practice novels sitting in a pile in a drawer in a trunk in the attic.
And now the flip side of my coin:
Sometimes, there is nothing I hate more than the OK first novel. There's an ill-defined boundary between selling an OK first novel that is good enough to have people saying "this is only OK, but I'm really eager to see more" and "this was OK, but I was hoping for better." In one of those scenarios, the OK first novel can launch a career which the first novel never comes to define. In the other scenario, the OK first novel can kill a career at birth.
My goal as an agent isn't to sell a novel for an author. It's to launch a career and sell many novels and establish a career. Because there is only one chance to make a first impression, we can be hurt when we sell the wrong first novel.
I read Matthew Woodring Stover's Heroes Die before he'd sold his first novel. That's a long time ago; Heroes Die is now old enough to have a driver's license, and it's 20 years or more that I might have read an early draft of it. In my recollection, that book is right up there with Peter V. Brett's Warded Man or Brandon Sanderson's Elantris as a great fantasy debut, and I would encourage all of you to try it. Odds are pretty good you will be eager to continue with the Caine series. There's just one problem with Heroes Die. It wasn't the first impression. There were two other novels by Matthew Woodring Stover that came out before it which weren't as ambitious. There's a line in Bull Durham about Nuke LaLoosh wanting to "announce my presence with authority," and I think Heroes Die would have announced this author's presence with more authority than Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon.
So I must reluctantly give advice contrary to Chuck Wendig's. If you think you've written something that isn't ready to send out, pre-reject it. Do yourself that favor. Because writing is hard. And I want to work with authors who are self aware, and who want to be better than OK.