10 Tips for Publishing Success (especially if you have an MFA)
By Kathryn Brown Ramsperger
I was lucky enough to attend Hollins University, renowned for its MFA in creative writing (Masters in Fine Arts degree). My classmates became award-winning authors. I sat next to, and was taught by, Pulitzer Prize winners and Poet Laureates. I found my voice there through experimentation and objective, positive critique. However, when I received my degree, the pervading mentality was that writing itself couldn’t be taught. When I set out to find an agent for my debut novel a couple of decades later, that viewpoint had shifted.
Yes, some things are inherent in a gifted writer: voice, rhythm, placing just right word exactly where it fits, like the clink of a key in a lock. However, in my search for an agent and publisher, I discovered several techniques that debut authors can incorporate to make their novels more publishable and commercial, and these things can be taught. I’ve provided some tips that I learned the hard way, so you can press the easy button:
1. Your novel is about characters, who drive the plot. Plot is essential because it makes our readers love our characters. Gone are the days of the quiet novel, where our protagonist looks wistfully out the window pondering the world, where nothing much happens to show our readers what our protagonist is made of. Your characters must act and react for a novel to move forward. You can use any plot structure, from the Hero(ine)’s Journey to a basic three-act structure with conflict, crisis, and resolution. But make sure the plot begins early. Page 1 should drive the plot, and your protagonist should be on page 1.
2. Your characters’ motivations drive them. A novel is an intricate link between plot and characters. Your characters have dreams and goals that drive them to make decisions based on what happens to them. Plot is what happens when your characters decide. Will they open Door # 1 or Door # 2? You can still love your characters, but they must face conflict, obstacles, for your readers to know and love them. If you’re stuck on what a character should do when confronted by xyz dilemma, interview them. How do they feel about what’s happening to them? Why?
3. Characters reacting to plot engages your reader. You can use other literary devices—symbols, point of view, dialogue–but they won’t drive your reader to turn the page. Only compelling characters and their actions and reactions cause that can’t-put-it-down feeling. Some writers think that plot involves war, murder, or crime. Plot can be any cause-and-effect action, as long as your characters surprise your reader and stay consistent to their personalities— as long as they stay “in character.”
4. Details add to a novel (unless you use too many). When I read in public, the audience always compliments my use of detail. My creative writing professors taught us to use detail so we’d show not tell. Yet any detail can be overused. Maybe your antagonist has a quirk that is unique to him or her but becomes a caricature when you dot every chapter with it. Use any of your senses (I like to add touch and scent) to add detail, but you don’t need a paragraph full of detail. The same goes for too much lyrical prose. A light touch works better in fiction.
5. Don’t stall beginnings. My uncle kept my entire family enraptured with his tales about the weather. I love nature. However, an editor from a New York publisher confided in me that her pet peeve was novels that opened with the weather. I deleted all references to nature out of my novel’s chapter openings. I realized I’d used up a lot of space talking about the weather. I come from a family of farmers, and their livelihood depended on rain and sun. The weather isn’t as interesting to most people these days. I’d stalled the action. Instead, begin where your protagonist is already changing, moving, not where s/he is balancing on the threshold to change, looking around or going within.
6. Leave readers hanging at chapter’s end; linger at book’s end. I know, you’re dying to write “The End.” The climax has come; shouldn’t the curtain fall? Not yet. Leave your chapters unresolved, so the reader will turn the page. Finish your novel so your reader will read your work again. Your reader has fallen in love with your characters, wondering where they will go, what they will do, now that the big moment has hit. Remember, your character drives the plot, and your character will be motivated to DO something after the climax. That’s what resolution is: It’s how your character reacts to the climax. Show that, tie up some loose strings, and you’ll have readers and agents knocking at your door.
7. Figure out what novels compare to yours. Then figure out how yours is different. When I began to write queries, I was told not to compare my novel to others, that it was like bragging. That advice has changed, and there’s a way to compare and still keep humble. List a couple of current titles on the shelf, published within the last two years, which you envision your novel sitting beside. Then explain how your novel differs. What makes it unique, yet the perfect neighbor to the other books in its neighborhood?
8. Publish widely. I’m a journalist, who’d been published in many national magazines. I’d published in a few literary journals, too. However, it was only once I began publishing a short story or article each quarter that I began to get a real audience. Social media groups are great, but engage your readers there, and reach out to new readers in print or online publications.
9. Cultivate a village. Attend courses and webinars. Teach. Speak. Write. Read from your manuscript. Request critiques. You’ll learn, and you’ll find your ideal reader. Once you have people raving over your manuscript, determine what makes them tick, what books they enjoy reading. Then test your novel just as manufacturers and marketers Beta test any other product. If the majority of your ideal readers hate something, think about changing it.
10. Stay up to date on market changes. All of this information is current today, because I read and research, and attend lots of events and conferences. However, the publishing field is changing at quite a clip, just like the rest of the world. So write for readers today, not yesterday. To do that, you have to know what they enjoy and what they’re reading. You have to know what agents and publishers are looking for because they know what’s selling. That’s why places like AuthorU are invaluable. Visit often, and drink from this wonderful pool of knowledge.
Kathryn Brown Ramsperger is a journalist, author, world traveler, coach, speaker, and mom whose debut novel The Shores Of Our Soulswill be published Summer 2017 by TouchPoint Press. Find out more and request a free excerpt at shoresofoursouls.com.
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