Can I query an agent when my manuscript isn’t completed?

NO

Oh, you were expecting a longer answer? Okay then.

NO CAUSE YOU HAVE TO FINISH YOUR BOOK FIRST.

That better?

Oh, fine. Here’s an appropriately long answer. (As a bonus, I’ll throw in a hard truth no writer wants to hear.)

Agents don’t want to see unfinished projects because, honestly, how many books have you read that started out oh this is so great! and then started to peter out before ending at someone save me! Yep. Too many. How can anyone tell if the story is strong throughout if it isn’t complete?

And what’s to prevent a writer from getting 2/3 through a book before realizing it needs to go a completely different direction . . . but he’s already queried agents. Now he has “No” responses from every agent because they don’t accept unfinished projects. What’s to motivate him to finish that book and go through several rounds of revisions to make it perfect? Nothing, really, because he’s discouraged before the book is even finished.

Literary agent Jennifer Laughran answered this question on her blog a short while ago. Here’s (part of) what she has to say:

I am not making a match between your random, unwritten notions and a publisher, much in the same way that modern matchmakers generally make the match between two consenting adults, and don’t marry off unborn children.

Now for the hard truth writers don’t want to hear.

No matter how much you want to believe that your first book will be perfect after a quick proofread and spellcheck, it won’t be. I guarantee it. Oh, I know how it is when you have this sparkling new baby of a book that is bursting with life. I thought much the same when I finished my first book. Now I look back and laugh (hysterically) when I think of my naïveté. Hoo boy! was I a silly young writer.

Thing is, even after four or five rounds of revisions, reports from test readers, and numerous sessions with critique partners, my first book wasn’t ready for publication. I thought it was at several points along that path, so I queried and got rejected plenty of times, but I can see now that it wasn’t nearly ready publication. Where is it now? you ask. At the bottom of my metaphorical drawer where it will sit until it’s cannibalized for future projects.

Some writers are lucky and sell the first book they write. They are much in the minority, and for good reason. First books are learner books. Writing a novel can’t be taught any more than parenthood can be taught. No matter what anyone says, your experience will be completely different than theirs. The only way to figure it out is by doing, and often that means doing it poorly.

No matter what I say here, you will probably think you’re better than that, that the book you have is so amazing and incredible, agents will be throwing themselves at your feet. There’s nothing I can say to convince you otherwise, but if you’re willing to listen, let me clue you in on a little secret: Every writer thinks that about his book.

So if everyone is an exception, why aren’t there more huge colossal debuts with billions of dollars in sales? Because Stephenie Meyer(s) and JK Rowlings(s) are so rare they happen once every decade or so. Rowling got the 90s, Meyer the 00s, while Suzanne Collins gets the 10s. That means you have at least another nine years to wait until you can possibly become a huge million billion selling debut sensation. Sorry.

Instead of focusing on how easy it’s going to be, why don’t you expect it to be hard and dig in your heels now. Getting a book published will be harder than you can imagine, but if you stick with it, it can also be one of the most rewarding things you do in your life. Don’t let it discourage you, either. Consider it your life’s challenge, then get out there and do your best to prove me wrong. Either way, promise me you’ll at least finish the book before you start querying. ‘Kay?