FTL bravely steps up and asks:
Did you write the book first, and then look for a publisher, or did you write a treatment/plan/etc. and shop it around first?
The trouble is, the assumption behind this question is flawed. What I’m sure you really want to know, FTL, are what strategy authors in general should use. We’ll get into what I did later, as an illustration of the absolutely wrong ways to handle such things.
Two caveats here. First, if you want to publish with someone, you should send them exactly what they request in their submission guidelines or in correspondence. Second, in terms of being a career-oriented writer, writing up a treatment for publishers beforehand is your best bet.
If you’re writing in your spare time and intend to do so as a side job or a hobby, though, the right answer can vary considerably.
Let’s say you submit a treatment to a publisher. You have to have a good idea of where the book’s going beforehand, so the publisher knows whether your work is marketable. You have to be willing to send it off, sit on the idea, and not be horribly upset when (as often happens) it’s rejected. If it’s accepted, you must be willing to work under a contract that specifies the topic, the length, and the deadline. When you’re done, though, the publisher has exactly what they want, and you can tell everyone that being closeted away for all that time actually paid off.
On the other hand, what if you write the book first? There’s more freedom in this for the writer. You can follow your enthusiasm instead of worrying about a plan. You can explore interesting topics you didn’t consider initially. You can take as much time as you want to make sure it’s as correct as possible. On the other hand, you might emerge from this process to find that your idea has already been done, or that massive revisions are needed, or that your labor of love, into which you poured heart, soul, time, and effort, is simply unmarketable.
Thus, the right answer is really dependent upon your personality and the particular project. I tend toward the meandering model, which I find personally satisfying. On the other hand, I have written three near-complete books that I don’t think will ever see print for various reasons. I don’t consider them a waste of time, though others certainly might.
For our next “Ask the Author,” I’ll talk about strategies that got me published but that you should consider as virulent as typhoid.
UPDATE: Of course, the real question for the professional author is, “What should I submit to potential agents?” I don’t have one, I forgot that part of the equation. (And for those who are wondering, I don’t have one because I don’t want to become a constant source of frustration to anyone who doesn’t deserve it.)