The Path To Publication

To MFA or not to MFA? Finding an agent. Landing a book deal.


Kathryn Miller Haines

1/10/20233 min read

Wooden cubes, each with a letter that spells "AUTHOR"
Wooden cubes, each with a letter that spells "AUTHOR"

Looking at my bio, you'll see that I have an MFA in fiction. I know that opinions on MFAs run the gambit, from the belief that programs churn out cookie-cutter writing to the claim that graduates of these programs have some sort of leg up in the industry. I don't think either of these perspectives is absolutely true. The value in getting an MFA was being forced to produce regularly, read constantly, and develop a thick hide for criticism.

I should also point out that my MFA was virtually free. I love a good bargain.

Unfortunately, the program didn't teach me anything about the publishing business. When I walked out of the University of Pittsburgh with my shiny new MFA, I had in hand a book that had served as my Master's thesis. I spent the next two years working on it until I was convinced that this literary masterpiece was ready for prime time. I started querying agents and almost immediately started collecting rejections. Finally, I snagged the interest of an agent who asked me to revise the book. I was excited and intimidated, so rather than asking questions, I delved into the revision I thought he wanted and ended up with a very long book that the agent promptly declared was unmarketable. In a terse email, he informed me he was disappointed in my inability to follow directions, and I spent weeks (months?) convinced that I would never be published.

I stopped querying and eventually decided I needed to start writing again. When I wasn't being emotional about how mean the Big Bad Agent had been, I could see that my book had problems, not the least of which was a convoluted plot that changed with every revision. I was dreadful at plotting, so I started reading mysteries, a genre I knew depended on crisp, beautiful plots. It was only natural — after reading so many of them — that my next project would be a mystery. I needed to practice these skills. I needed to become a better writer.

So Rosie Winter was born. But that's not the only thing that happened. As I began work on The War Against Miss Winter, I joined two critique groups -- one for playwrights and one for fiction writers. Once again, I was called upon to produce regularly, read constantly, and absorb the valuable feedback of other writers. I can't say enough how crucial these groups have been to my development as a writer or how grateful I am that I know the very talented people who populate them. Reading their writing inspired me; hearing their critiques helped me look more carefully at my work, and attending their meetings gave me a community of like-minded souls to vent and rejoice with.

Plus there were refreshments. It's not a critique group unless someone brings cookies.

As for getting an agent and selling the book: like most other writers, I researched which agent* was looking for what and sent out queries. I had no connections, no ins, nothing but a stronger story to sell this time (and one I felt like I knew how to sell). Once again, I received plenty of rejections. I also got a large number of requests to see more. One agent, in particular, was excited enough to pick up the phone and call me about the three chapters I had sent him. Unlike my prior experience, he loved the book, and his enthusiasm was infectious. After reading the whole enchilada, he made suggestions for revisions. This time I asked questions and not only received clear answers but also frequent phone calls checking on my progress. I revised the book into something that we were both looking for. He signed me, helped me polish it further, and sold it- an unwritten sequel- three months later.

Yeah, I didn't believe it could happen either. It just goes to show you...

*I also carefully checked out which agents were legitimate by searching the Association for Author Representatives site. Remember the sage words of Yog: Money flows toward the writer. (dolyeandmacdonald)