3 Critical Things You Won’t Learn in an MFA Program

The pros and cons of an MFA in creative writing are widely debated: on one hand, such programs offer students the opportunity to work with accomplished authors, whose expertise (and endorsements) could make all the difference in publishing their first book. On the other hand, such programs often come with a hefty price tag, with fully funded options few and far between. But regardless of whether you go for an MFA, some things are critical to establishing a career as an author that you probably don’t know, unless you’ve learned them the hard way (or you’ve worked in publishing).

Source: 3 Critical Things You Won’t Learn in an MFA Program | Jane Friedman\

The important take-aways from this post have little to do with whether or not you’re considering an MFA program or even know any reasons why anyone would sign up for one.

This post is interesting because it shows you that agents and publishers don’t read your manuscript the same way a beta reader, professor, or colleague in a critique group reads it.

Obviously, the agent and publisher want to see if your story will sell and to do that they focus closely on the voice you demonstrate in the opening lines and whether or not the characters and plot develop reasonably throughout the work.

Their view, while narrow and expedient, is often similar to what reviewers and knowing readers bring to a book. Worth looking at, I think.






Don’t Let Your Publisher Become Your Worst Enemy

I have a wonderful publisher, in Thomas-Jacob, and couldn’t be happier. One of the positives of a small (some say boutique) publisher is that the author and the publisher can actually talk to each other about what the best approach to the book.

Larger publishers often make decisions about books that come from heavenly heights and cannot be questioned.

A long-time online friend of mine is an acclaimed Canadian author. I’ve read most of her books. What bothers me about her publisher’s decision making is the fact that those books have different Canadian and U.S. Titles. Sometimes this is necessary. But in her case, those differing titles cause a lot of reader confusion about what book they’re buying. Frankly, I don’t think the U. S. and Canadian audiences are so different that a book requires separate titles for Amazon and Amazon.ca. I think this kind of thing hurts the author.

I just finished reading a novel by one of my favorite U.S. authors that is set in New Orleans just after the Civil War. I considered posting a review today, but then saw that on Amazon the book was listed as Political Fiction. Those who like southern gothic fiction and historical fiction will never find it there. Pardon my exasperation, but who the hell came up with those genre classifications for this novel?

From what I hear, if one of the major U.S. publishers releases your novel, you may have to put up with some stuff you don’t like. I guess that’s called “paying your dues” or pretending that “the publisher knows best.”

Book genres aren’t perfect. Neither are titles. But they do tend to steer prospective readers toward an author’s book. If you can, I hope you can discuss such things with your publisher before the historical novel you titled “Tough Women” is released as “Porn Babes” in the “How To Repair a Flathead 6 Engine” genre.

I’d say that if you cannot agree on the title and the genre, you have a problem.


Just starting out? Beware of Magical Realism

Once upon a time, when teachers said “You can’t do XYZ in your writing,” I listed famous authors who did it all the time. The teachers’ responses were all the same: “When you’re famous you can do that.”

MRbloghop2015Some publishers also have this theory and, I’ll stipulate that they’re not totally wrong. If you’re thinking about magical realism as your prospective genre of choice, be careful. Some publishers abhor the label and claim it’s merely an uppity name for fantasy and/or that it means the author has “literary fiction pretensions.”

In general, except when we’re talking big names and/or big advertising budgets, fantasy finds more readers than magical realism and commercial fiction finds more readers than literary fiction (or fiction perceived as literary).

What happens if you’ve written a magical realism novel? Don’t let the publisher sell it as fantasy. Fantasy readers expect certain things. Most genre readers do. So, if your magical realism novel is slotted into the fantasy genre, it probably won’t sell. Readers will either be disappointed or stay away in droves. Others will post negative reviews that are hard to survive.

It’s a catch-22 thing. Yes, magical realism is typically listed as a subset of fantasy. That’s a mistake, but “they didn’t ask me.” Magical realism uses magic that the characters don’t see as unusual or out of place in a setting that is otherwise very realistic. Fantasy readers aren’t going to buy that as fantasy. So, what do you do?

I guess if HarperCollins has given you a $100,000 advance, you keep your mouth shut. Otherwise, get another publisher or publish the book yourself. Or, if you want a slightly easier career, you might consider writing fantasy and then shifting into magical realism before you become to typecast as a fantasy writer only.

Three of my novels are out of print because the publisher not only sold them as fantasy but removed the more subtle magical realism in favor of the more overt magic of fantasy. I don’t have the stamina to re-write them. Of course, they might have been a dead horse: they might have crashed and burned no matter what genre we put them in.

I love the art and craft of writing and that means I write about the world the way I see the world. I see the subtle workings of magic in daily life. Am I a shaman? Am I psychic? Am I crazy? Am I in need of stronger medications?

Who cares?

breathoflifeThe late, highly creative Brazilian author Clarice Lispector (“A Breath of Life”) said, “I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own.” Now that’s true of most of us who write. The reader doesn’t care whether we’re crazy as long as they’re getting a wonderful story.

Only you know how your writing ends up the way it does. That’s between you and your muse. Sure, others can help you make it better. They’re called editors and publishers (if you pick the right ones). But when the cows finally come home–and they will–you have to be happy with it because it is a part of you.

If you see magic in the world, don’t let anyone else say that you don’t and turn your novel into something it isn’t. You have to be who you are and let the spirits and spells fall where they may.




This post is part of the Magical Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magical realism. Please take the time to click on the button above to visit sit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.The button should go live on or after 12:01 a.m. July 29th.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a magical realism novella folk magic in the Jim Crow era of the Florida Panhandle where granny and her cat take on the Klan.

Writing wasting away in Limboville

I’ve been asked what happened to my contemporary fantasy novels The Sun Singer and Sarabande.

printingpressSince both have been well received, I found a new publishing home (Publisher B) after pulling them away from Publisher A due to a disagreement about the contract.

Publisher B had previously come out with many novels I enjoyed, some of which I had reviewed, so I thought I had found the perfect home for my work.

So what happened?

My guess is that staff turnover at Publisher B created a deluge of work that the remaining staff couldn’t keep up with. Nonetheless, when I sent the manuscripts to the publisher in the fall of 2013, I felt the publisher could meet his proposed release dates of January 2014 for The Sun Singer and May 2014 for Sarabande.

These dates were missed with no explanation and I was given a new set of release dates that were also missed with no explanation. Perhaps my request for a cover befitting a fantasy novel was the problem. I said that the covers supplied by Publisher A, while striking, weren’t typical fantasy covers; among other things, they gave readers no clue about the focus of the novels.

Publisher B agreed as did several of the artists he contacted who looked at the covers I’d had before. Yet somehow, no viable artist could be found until late in the summer of 2014. Finally, The Sun Singer was released last August with a nice cover and a great printing job.

E-book Problems

Unfortunately, the formatting of the e-books as a mess. The publisher blamed me for supplying documents that had formatting errors. He was right about that, though I consider the delivery of a manuscript to be the author’s responsibility and the formatting for print, Kindle, PDF and other e-books to be the publisher’s responsibility. I also expect the publisher to make sure the formatting is correct before the books go live on a seller’s site.

It took me several weeks to get Publisher B to remove the e-books from Amazon and Smashwords. I would have preferred the files be fixed and re-uploaded, but this didn’t seem to be happening. Then, Publisher B removed the print version from Amazon and elsewhere even though there was nothing wrong with it.

We had a variety of discussions about how the e-book formatting should be done, my preference being for something that mirrored the formatting of the print version. Whether I was asking for something impossible to deliver, I don’t know.

Finally, several weeks ago, Publisher B sent me an e-mail saying they were ready to release The Sun Singer in e-book (with a simplified formatting) and print.

Publisher B doesn’t seem to understand that the author needs to know the release date so s/he can do advanced publicity, set up give-aways on GoodReads, and talk about the book on Facebook and Twitter.

I asked for the release date and got no response. Publisher B asked me about Sarabande, I answered, and got no response. I asked about being added to the publisher’s blog so I could help promote the books and got no response.

Finally, I used my old e-mail address to ask the publisher if messages from my new e-mail address were ending up in the SPAM folder because we were (I thought) in the middle of a dialogue about moving forward and all I was hearing from Publisher B was the sound of silence. My question about the SPAM queue got no response.

So there it is. Both novels have been in limbo for over a year. Since Publisher B has authors and novels on their list that I like, I would prefer they release The Sun Singer and Sarabande. Whether they will or they won’t is a question stuck in the black hole of zero communication.

What Happens Now?

Now, if you are Publisher B and happen to be reading this, and have been sick, immersed in a family tragedy or a business reversal, then I would be sorry to hear that because I know what that’s like. I wish you had told me and propose that when you can’t keep up with e-mail, then a staff assistant needs to step up to the plate and keep things running smoothly.

If you’re not Publisher B and wish to have your work published, I’ll say that long delays of a year or so are not uncommon with major publishers, though you do need to have an agreed-upon time table for all the steps in the process. One of the benefits of working with a smaller publisher is the hands-on more personal approach as well as a shorter manuscript-to-print time frame.

My mistake here was not nailing down the release dates, with reasonable flexibility, in advance. Also, if small-publisher tradition and/or contract language specifies that the author is responsible for most of the marketing effort, the publisher needs to at least keep the author informed of release dates (and then stick to them) as well as having a blog or a system of news releases that announce the new books. This needs to be in the contract, too. I didn’t get that nailed down either because my back-and-forth e-mails with Publisher B gave me the impression my expectations about such things would be met without being backed up by clauses in the contract.

I’ve been in this business long enough to know better and ended up with my books in Limboville. There are many sites that show standard book contracts. While reading them doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a prospective new publisher to add any verbiage you find missing in his standard contract, you can always try.

I let my emotions get in the way: I was so upset with Publisher A about the contract dispute that everything Publisher B seemed to be offering looked like a breath of fresh air. It’s better to step away from those kinds of negative feelings and hopes and make sure you have a meeting of the minds with a prospective publisher before you sign the contract.

This is your cautionary tale.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of The Lady of the Blue Hour and The Land Between the Rivers. His short stories appear in The Lascaux Prize 2014 (2014) and Spirits of St. Louis: Missouri Ghost Stories (2013).




My Experiment With Authonomy

Don’t worry, Authonomy is not a mysterious philter to be used at midnight beneath a full moon. It’s HarperCollins’ “avoid the slush” website where authors with manuscripts in search of a publisher and/or print-on-demand books in search of a mainstream house can upload their work to be read, watched and commented upon by adoring readers.

Is Authonomy.com a good place for your manuscript? Possibly so. If you’re not sure, take a look at my entry for The Sun Singer and then take a look at the FAQs. I’ve only uploaded one chapter of the novel so far, but plan to add more as time permits.

I’m sure quantum mechanics principles will become involved in this experiment before it’s over. With luck, it will become an exciting entanglement.

Note: Authonomy closed in 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/20/authonomy-writing-community-closed-by-harpercollins