I just saw a great post on this over on the KidLit blog (run by agent Mary Kole) and wanted to address the question: "How Do You Know if Your Project is Ready to Send Out?"
The common answer is something about how each project is different and it all depends, yadda yadda yadda—but that answer doesn't help you. The next thing people say is that you don't want to send it out before it's ready, meaning that it's much better to work on it longer and refine it rather than send it out too early just because you're sick of looking at it. (As one playwriting agent once said: "No play ever got produced too late.") This is damn good advice—one of the most important tips you can heed—but it still doesn't answer the question as specific to your manuscript.
The best answer I can give on the subject is this: If you think the story has a problem, it does. When I have edited full-length manuscripts in the past (some for SCBWI friends and others on a freelance editor basis), a lot of time, when I am addressing a problem in the book, the writer will nod before I even finish the sentence. What this means is that they knew about the problem and I just confirmed what they already knew.
For example, some typical concerns were stuff like this:
- "This part where he gets beat up—it doesn't seem believable that so many kids just took off school like that."
- "If the main character is so stealth, then how come he gets caught by the bad guys here?"
- "It starts too slow."
These are garden variety problems with a manuscript, and writers all seem to know many of their problematic issues before anyone even tells them. So this all brings me back to Point #1: If you think your work has a problem, then it more than likely does—and any manuscript with a problem is not ready for agent eyes.
This shows the importance of beta readers—friends who will review the work once it's written. They will come back to you with concerns, both big and small. You address the concerns in a revision and send the work to more readers. Once readers stop coming back with concerns, you're starting to get somewhere. If you think you have issues, or multiple critiquers agree on a problem, then you're not ready for Querytime. If you're not sure the beginning starts fast enough, it probably doesn't. When you and your readers can look at a book and say that all concerns are adequately addressed, then you're ready.