Category: On Writing

5 Things You Need to Know About Publishing

5 Things You Need to Know About Publishing

Here are a few things you need to know if you want to publish a book with a traditional publisher. While the process for publishing nonfiction and fiction is a bit different, some principles remain the same across genres.

1. Yes, you need an agent

If you want to publish with The Big 5, or many of the larger independent publishing houses like Algonquin, you have to have a literary agent. Most agents are based in New York City. No reputatable agent will charge you up front. The typical agent commission for domestic sales is 15%, and it’s worth every penny. Commission for foreign sales is higher, because your agent works with foreign agents, who also charge a commission. Also worth every penny. There are a whole slew of rights you need to keep, and a good agent knows how to negotiate those rights. Once you have an agent, don’t bother her every day. Let her do her job. Keep in touch, but don’t be a pill, and don’t be a squeaky wheel.

2. No, you don’t need an MFA.

If you have one, fine, but an MFA won’t get you published. Unless you have a great manuscript to go along with that degree, an MFA probably won’t even get you noticed. If you can mention an MFA in your query letter to an agent, it does show that you’ve been engaged in writing seriously (or at least steadily) for a couple of years, which is a good thing. If you studied somewhere particularly prestigious, it could get you a foot in the door. But a degree is no substitute for a good book. Whatever you do, don’t go into debt for an MFA. If you do choose to get one, try to go somewhere that is fully funded?—?meaning you don’t pay a dime, and you graduate with valuable teaching experience. Or, if you’re already a professional, choose a reputable low-residency program whose faculty you admire, which allows you to keep your day job while engaging in independent study with the faculty. You can also get your feet wet by studying privately with reputable writers. Many teach on the side through continuing studies programs, which don’t require you to change your life too much or enroll in a full-fledged writing program.

3. The publishing calendar is lengthy

It usually takes well over a year after you sign a book deal for your book to come out. Maybe two years or more. It’s frustrating, but, for the time being at least, it’s a part of the beast. In your contract, be sure there is language indicating that the publisher has a limited amount of time after acceptance of manuscript to publish the book?—?18 months seems to be standard. While you’re waiting for your book to come out, you should be writing your next book. Ideally, you’ll have a complete, solid draft by the time your first book comes out. Once you’ve signed a contract, you should always be thinking of your next book. Don’t forget that you’re in this for the long haul; keep writing.

4. Be Your Own Publicist.

Use the time between acceptance and publication to do your own groundwork. Build your email list. Connect with potential readers. Stay in touch with your in-house publicist (and your independent publicist if you hire one) to start setting up readings and events at least six months before pub date. Don’t drown your twitter followers with tweets about your book. Around book launch time, it’s okay and even necessary to devote a lot of your tweets to your events and to interviews and blog posts about your book. But you’re able to do so only if you’ve already earned your followers’  trust by posting interesting and engaging content that’s not all about you. You can market your book on social networks only if you also use your social networks to truly engage with people.

5. Love your independent bookstores.

Small bookstores are wonderful places to read. When you have an event at an independent store, it’s not all about how many people show up for the reading. The store will put your event in their newsletter, and the booksellers will handsell your book when customers walk in. The reach of your event extends before and after the actual reading date. Set up joint readings with other authors, which decreases the chance of staring out at a sea of empty seats. If only three or four people show up at your reading, treat them well. Don’t be a diva. Ever. Instead of standing behind the podium, sit down with your readers?—?they’ve come to see you, after all!?—?and have a conversation. They’ll go away feeling invested not just in the book you’re reading from, but in you as an author.

Do you want to write stories or novels? Check out my 8-week email course, Writing Fiction.

Want to learn more about how to publish your novel? Enroll in Publishing Boot Camp.

Michelle Richmond is the author of four novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog, and two award-winning story collections.

How Not to Be Boring – Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel

How Not to Be Boring – Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel

You know that feeling when you walk into a great house? Or even just an interesting house? The feeling you get that things are in order, or aren’t. The feeling of the home being well-composed or chaotic. The sense you get of the kind of person who lives there. Maybe the entryway opens onto a living room filled with natural light, or maybe the front door brings you face to face with stacks of old magazines and discarded shoes.

The opening paragraphs of a novel are like the entryway to a home. They should be inviting. They should inspire people to come in, look around. They should include enough clues to let the visitor know what kind of world she is entering, but they shouldn’t be so packed with stuff that the visitor gets sensory or information overload.

In Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice, Colum McCann writes:

The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.

This got me thinking about how change is at the heart of story. Without change, there is no story. You should begin your novel or story with the idea that something is going to change at any moment, and your reader should be able to feel that urgency too.

In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron writes:

When we pick up a book, we’re jonesing for the feeling that something out of the ordinary is happening. We crave the notion that we’ve come in at a crucial juncture in someone’s life, and not a moment too soon. What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is trouble brewing, but it’s longstanding and about to reach critical mass.

Your job as a novelist isn’t to write a sentence so beautiful that you think it ought to be set to music. Beautiful sentences are great, unless the sentences convey no story. No, your job as a novelist is to tell a story, and in the process of telling that story, to not be boring.

If your first paragraph is a languid and lovely description of landscape, you might lose your readers before they get to the end of the first page. Landscape, in general, does not feel active. It does not feel urgent. It feels, instead, like a writer attempting to be writerly. Of course, there are times when the landscape is exactly the right way to begin your novel; there is no hard and fast rule about how to begin. But if there’s no compelling reason to put description first, then start with character, with trouble, with whatever is urgent, crucial, and out of the ordinary.

Learn all about novel beginnings, suspense, character development, and more in Novel Writing Master Class 1, the first course in my Novel Writing Master Class Series.

The Inspiration for The Marriage Pact

The Inspiration for The Marriage Pact

The Marriage Pact on Entertainment Weekly Must ListOne of the questions I’ve been hearing the most at readings over the last couple of weeks is, “Where did you get the idea for this crazy book?” (The second comment I get a lot is, “But you seem so much nicer than I expected.” If you can’t figure out why anyone would say that, you probably haven’t gotten to the part about Fernley yet.) So here, it is, in black and white: the inspiration for THE MARRIAGE PACT, which is really three inspirations:

Inspiration #1: LOVE

I’ve been married for 16 years (thanks, Kevin!), and I’ve written about marriage (and divorce) before in novels like Golden State. This time, I wanted to write about two people who are deeply in love and trying to make it work. I didn’t want to write a story of husband against wife, but rather a husband and wife together, struggling against a powerful outside force.

Inspiration #2: CULTS

The second inspiration was my longstanding fascination with cults–in particular, organizations that lure people in with the promise of helping them to live fuller, happier lives and be better versions of themselves. Some fashion themselves as religions, while others purport to be self-help movements. I wanted to explore why educated, reasonable individuals get drawn into these organizations and become so enmeshed that they leave behind family members, spend massive amounts of money to take seminars or courses, and even sign extreme contracts committing themselves to the organization for life and beyond.


The third piece of the puzzle was The Federal Criminal Code, a massive tome, comprised of over a thousand pages of tiny print. The book, issued annually, outlines every crime you can think of, along with many you can’t, and the corresponding penalties. I wondered: What would happen if there were strict rules for marriage, and penalties for those who broke the rules? What if there was an organization that took marital “crimes” as seriously as other types of crimes? I wanted to put that concept under the microscope, take it as far as I could, and see what happened.

I talked about inspiration and more with Joe Hartlaub for Bookreporter. Read the author interview.

Did you enjoy this post? Get my twice-monthly newsletter in your inbox.

P.S. The Marriage Pact is on the Entertainment Weekly Must List this week!

Get The Marriage Pact.

Writing psychological thrillers- plus the pleasures of genre-bending

Writing psychological thrillers- plus the pleasures of genre-bending

I recently sat down with Bookreporter to discuss writing and my new psychological thriller, The Marriage Pact. We talked about the inspiration for The Marriage Pact, why I love writing psychological thrillers and suspense, four primary rules of The Pact, collectivism gone awry, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, genre-bending, writing really scary scenes, and writing process.

I liked Bookreporter’s question about blurring genres. Read the entire Bookreporter author interview.

BRC: Each of your books has tended to blur genres, and THE MARRIAGE PACT doubles down on that. The controlling and threatening aspect of The Pact clearly landed it in the thriller genre for me, and there are elements of romance and even some science fiction to it. Are you drawn toward or away from any particular genre? Did you find that you had to rein yourself in while writing the book to keep it from swerving into one genre or another? If so, how did you do it?

MR: It’s true, my books have always crossed genres. When I write a book, I don’t really think about genre. I think instead about a specific person in a particular place and time, facing a specific and significant problem. Before I turn it in, I begin to think about how it will be received in terms of genre and where it will fit. There is a tendency in the publishing industry to want to put every book in a single category, and to strip away everything in the manuscript that doesn’t fit the prescribed category. Every book can only sit on one shelf, but that doesn’t mean it neatly fits into a single genre. That said, genre can actually be very helpful in leading readers to books they will enjoy.

While THE MARRIAGE PACT is the first novel I’ve written that has landed on the suspense shelf, I always try to write suspenseful novels, because I want to entertain the reader. There are many different ways to do suspense, though, and not all require the kind of pacing that is expected in a thriller. THE YEAR OF FOG begins with a child who goes missing on a foggy San Francisco beach, and GOLDEN STATE involves a tense hostage crisis at a Veterans Administration Hospital. NO ONE YOU KNOW, which reviewers described as a literary thriller, derives its suspense from an unsolved murder that happened 20 years before.

Every one of my novels has a romantic relationship front and center, because I am a (practical) romantic, and I like to think about and write about the way two people stay together or break apart. What causes the ruptures? What helps them to repair those ruptures? I also believe that humans need intimacy. We look for it in our literature and films just as we look for it in our lives. Emotional intimacy between two characters helps us feel connected to a story and its characters, and it also inspires us to think about our own relationships. Also, in romantic relationships, we are often the truest version of ourselves, because our private moments with people we love tend to be when our defenses and masks fall away. Put your character in a room alone with his or her spouse, and you begin to see who that character really is.

The scene or scenes to which I think you’re referring that verge on horror are a true departure from my other novels, but it just felt right and organic to those moments in the story. I often have a tendency to hold back in my writing, to have protagonists proceed with caution the way I do in my everyday life. I wanted to let go of caution in THE MARRIAGE PACT, and get the characters into situations I’m pretty certain I will never encounter. I wanted to let the narrative spin out to a scarier place than I’ve been willing to go before. I had so much fun, I just might do it again!

Read the complete interview on Bookreporter.

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens – Loneliness & Creativity in the Falklands

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens – Loneliness & Creativity in the Falklands

Verdict: an unusual and utterly absorbing memoir, an apt examination of one young woman’s struggle to create in solitude

In general, I think memoirs are best told by writers who have a few decades under their belts. Memoir by its very nature tends to veer toward navel-gazing; it takes a degree of intellectual rigor and self-depecration to pull it off without being dull at best, annoyingly narcissistic at worst. I struggled with this problem myself, when, at the age of 28, I traveled solo to Beijing for work. During my time there, I tried to make a memoir of it, but upon my return home, the memoir became a novel. I ultimately felt that, at my age, I could tell a story, but my own story wasn’t interesting enough to make a memoir.

So I was more than pleasantly surprised by Nell Stevens’s Bleaker House, a memoir about the writer’s time isolated on the frozen Bleaker Island, with only the penguins for company. How she came to be there would be the envy of any young writer. Upon completing their MFA year at Boston University, students are given an unusual opportunity: every student receives a fellowship to pursue his or her writing for three months anywhere in the world.

When Stevens chooses the tiny, isolated Bleaker Island in the Falklands–in order to get away from everything, to write her novel in solitude and struggle–the director of her MFA program advises against it. Why not Paris? he wants to know. But Stevens is determined to leave behind the distractions of Boston, and of her home city of London, of civilization in general, and be a writer. Getting to the island is difficult, and she is allowed only a very limited amount of luggage. Because the island has no stores and no residents beyond the mostly absent owners of a barely-operating farm, she must bring all of her supplies with her. She allots 1,000 calories per day, mostly in the form of instant oatmeal, raisins, and Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

What emerges from her grueling self-imposed exile is not a novel, but instead this memoir: a blunt and beautifully introspective examination of solitude and the creative process. She discovers that an island of one’s own is a far cry from a room of one’s own, and a story doesn’t necessarily flow just because you’ve shut out all ordinary distractions. Hunger and loneliness prove to be even more formidable distractions, and the time stretching out before her is more harrowing than liberating.

Interspersed throughout the memoir are snippets from Stevens’s failed novel. While the fictional interludes serve to show the way life feeds into art, they are the least interesting part of the book, at times feeling like filler. That said, as I read the fictional chapters, it occurred to me that they were bizarrely marketable, and had she finished the novel, it might have proved an easy sell. Instead, she returned home to London and wrote something stranger and more riveting, a hybrid gem of a book that captures the heady, scary, promising feeling of just starting out.

While the failure of the novel vexed the writer, it is to the reader’s advantage that Stevens did not write what she set out to write, but something else entirely. The something else entirely is where the beauty and heart of this book lie.

Michelle Richmond is the author of two story collections and four novels. Her new novel, The Marriage Pact, is forthcoming in 28 languages.

Get my writing tips in your inbox