Through the Fire: MK Pagano
Pursuing publishing can come with setbacks. Like A LOT of setbacks.
Hundreds of rejections. Ghosting. Sketchy beta readers. More rejections. More ghosting. Agents leaving. Agents dropping you. Life deciding it's time for a lay-off or funeral. More rejections. More ghosting. The team not liking your book enough. Editors leaving. Editors laid off. Release dates pushed back. Imprint closings. Lackluster marketing. Cargo ships crashing. Crazy evangelicals calling for bannings. More rejections. More delays. More ghosting. And on and on it goes, rinse wash repeat until the cycle ends on defeat (delicate setting because authors are sensitive).
But when you're up against the wall (or parallel to the floor whichever is your preferred "I give up" positioning)—you have nowhere else to go. And sometimes, that's when the odds become ever in your favor (Thanks, Queen Suzanne). The only place left to go is up when the ground is the expectation. Slowly, you rise until you're standing up straight, ready for another spin in the publishing machine.
Keep on reading for author MK Pagano's spin in the publishing machine
1. Welp, the first question is the one all in the writing community love to know! What’s the story of your writing journey?
As a little kid, I wrote stories all the time. Most were poorly disguised fanfictions of my favorite books, but I had a few originals in there as well. I even recall winning a prize for one of them in elementary school. My freshman year in high school, I was encouraged by my English teacher to submit a short story I’d written to our school’s literary magazine. I picked up a copy of the litmag and was completely intimidated by how mature and serious all the work was–it was all poetry about sex and drugs, whereas I’d written a story about a girl who searches for buried treasure with her guardian angel in disguise. This was the late nineties and YA in its current form didn’t exist yet. I remember feeling ashamed at how juvenile my story felt, and so I never ended up submitting it. Then I stopped writing altogether. I wonder sometimes what might have happened had I not self-rejected so fast, or understood that there is space for all kinds of stories when it comes to literature for teens. I’m glad that teens today have a much wider selection to choose from, in terms of what they can read and write.
Fast forward about ten years. I’d recently graduated from college and didn’t know what to do with my life. I was a French major, so I spent a year teaching English in France, discovered that it wasn’t for me, then came back to the US and got a job in marketing in NYC. I soon discovered that wasn’t for me, either–so I bought a bunch of books about novel writing, read them, and decided to try my hand at writing a book (while still working in marketing–I had rent to pay, after all.)
It took me years to finish my first novel. I queried it in 2014–and it was a total bust. I had a handful of full requests, but they were all ultimately rejections. I’d done a few things wrong with my first book, namely, I’d paid no attention to plot, structure, pacing, or character arcs, and instead focused mainly on writing pretty sentences about the setting and the love interest. I’d also never used a critique partner–I was so afraid of putting my work out there for strangers to read.
With my second book, I rectified those mistakes. I ended up submitting that book to Author Mentor Match in 2016–brand new at the time–and securing a fantastic mentor, now an incredible author in her own right, Rebecca Barrow. Becky was the first “stranger” to tell me my writing was good. She imbued me with the confidence to keep going, as well as the humility to completely take my book apart and rewrite it. I credit her fully with the fact that, after many, many rewrites, I secured my first agent in 2018, after only 6 weeks of querying.
That book was a YA contemporary that I was completely in love with. The agent I signed with was a senior agent at a big name kidlit agency, and I thought I’d hit the jackpot. Life also got rather busy once I signed–I gave birth to my first child two days after The Call!--so it was another 6 months before I had the time to revise enough and go on submission for the first time, in the summer of 2019.
The rejections I received on that book were some of the nicest compliments I’d ever heard about my writing. Editors praised the prose, the characters, the setting–but it was always a no. A common theme in editor responses was “this was too quiet for a thriller.” I was confused–I thought I’d written a contemporary. The plot circled around a missing girl, but it was about the MC actively choosing not to find out what happened to her. But that was the first time it ever occurred to me–hmmm, I wonder what it would be like to write a thriller?
After a round of revisions with my agent, we went on sub again in early 2020. Again, it was all rejections–slower this time, because it was 2020. At that point I’d written two more YA contemporaries, as well as a YA fantasy. My agent thought one contemporary was too quiet, and the fantasy was too off-brand, so we focused on revising the other contemp, about a high school stage crew. We went through several rounds of revisions before, in late 2020, my agent emailed to say she didn’t feel her editorial vision was resonating with me and she felt she’d be doing me a disservice continuing on as my agent. So just like that, it was over. I was heartbroken–but in retrospect, it was the best thing that agent could have done for me. Curious about what it would be like to intentionally write a thriller, I’d already started drafting what would become GIRLS WHO BURN on the side, and my first agent didn’t rep thrillers. Setting me free to find an agent who was a better fit for me was ultimately the right thing to do.
So first I cried, then I vented in the group chats–but then it was back to drafting my very first thriller.
I revised it extensively, and started querying it mid 2021. Querying was slower this time, but I had a pretty high full request rate. I did an R&R for a big-name dream agent about a month into my querying journey, which ultimately turned into a rejection, but it did make my book stronger and my full request rate go up. Finally, in early 2022, I heard back from one agent with my full, Barbara Poelle, described to me as “the thriller queen” of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. I assumed it was an R&R–I’d lost some confidence in myself by that point. But the next week, I got on the phone with Barbara alongside her junior agent, Sydnie Thornton. It was not an R&R–it was an offer, from a dream agent team.
What followed was a whirlwind week where, after notifying the other agents with partials and fulls, I received 3 additional offers of rep. It was the worst best week ever. I hate making decisions and this was a huge one. Ultimately, I felt Sydnie and Barbara had the best editorial vision for my book, and Barbara certainly had the track record of selling thrillers, so–after literally flipping a coin to make sure I was making the right decision–I signed with them.
We did just two quick revision rounds before going on sub. They had the idea to submit an exclusive submission to Caitlin Tutterow at Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Teen–which means you send the MS to one editor, who has a hard deadline to read and make an offer before you go wide. I trusted them, so I said yes–and within 2 weeks, I had an offer from Caitlin to publish my book.
I was floored it had happened so fast–and of course, there was doubt creeping in, too. I still had the option to go wide–while I loved Caitlin’s vision and enthusiasm for my book, and the imprint was a fantastic place to be, there was still that little dream of seeing “at auction” next to my name in the Publisher’s Weekly announcement that I’d be giving up if I took the exclusive. But ultimately, I had a really great feeling about Caitlin–and my goal in writing was not to get the biggest deal ever, but to get my book published by a great publisher. And I had that. So I said yes!
2. It’s just a THRILLER! Your debut, GIRLS WHO BURN, is due to grace our shelves in 2024. While most people hear thriller and think “oop, somebody’s dead”, your book announcement leads with two childhood friends turned enemies having to work together and possibly falling in love along the way? Can you tell us how you merged romance with thrill? When the book was acquired what was your editor’s reception to that?
I was nervous about the amount of romance in my thriller, because more than one agent along the way rejected it for exactly that reason. But the romance is at the core of my story and I badly did not want to tone it down or god forbid, take it out. But my editor Caitlin made it clear from the beginning that she loved that aspect of my story, and if anything, along our editing journey together, we’ve only made it stronger.
So my thriller does still start off with a dead body–or rather, it starts off a year after the (first) dead body. Addie’s sister Fiona was found dead in the woods last summer, and Addie’s spent the past year grieving, while also coming up against dead end after dead end in trying to prove that her sister’s death wasn’t an accident. She accuses the rich boy next door, Thatcher Montgomery, of killing Fiona–which puts her at odds with Thatcher’s cousin Seth, who is adamant Thatcher is innocent. Addie and Seth have a bit of a history, to put it lightly. They start off the book screaming at each other that the other is wrong–but are then interrupted by the discovery of another dead body: Thatcher’s. Now they’re suddenly united in one purpose: find out who killed Fiona and Thatcher. Seth’s the only person Addie can trust, because they were together during both murders. But he comes from a family she definitely does not trust, which makes things complicated, to say the least.
3. Thrillers are devoured by readers which likely means they grace a lot of mswls. If you were to give advice to writers about chasing the thriller train, how would you say writing them differs from other genres?
So I learned a lot about thriller writing when I wrote my debut, because I was so confused that according to some editors, I’d accidentally written a thriller before. If you are going to intentionally write a thriller–which I obviously recommend!--I would definitely read up on how to plot one. Similar to romance readers, who expect a happy ending for the couple, thriller readers have expectations: that there’s a crime to solve, that the MC will spend most of the book trying to solve that crime, that there will be red herrings along the way, that there will be some element of danger, but that the crime will be solved by the end.
One thing I’ve noticed is that these days, almost every thriller has some kind of “twist you never saw coming” language in their marketing materials. So including “the twist” has become somewhat de rigueur in thrillers, and there are times when that’s really hard! You want your “twist” to feel realistic enough, but also you don’t want readers to guess it. For me, that means that every time I do a round of edits, I have to get a new beta reader to make sure I haven’t messed up the twist and they aren’t able to guess it easily. With thrillers you can’t just keep sending the MS to the same readers because they already know the ending. It just ends up requiring a ton of editing and extra beta reading to make sure you’re planting all the right seeds in the right places to make sure you really nail the ending. In other genres, you don’t necessarily spend the book trying to fool your readers, so I think that’s something that takes some getting used to.
4. What are your tips for pacing and tension? How does one keep this going while developing the fully fleshed characters and relationships needed for a romance?
My tip is to get acquired by Caitlin Tutterow because she is a master editor who will make sure your book absolutely nails all these things by the end of the editing process!
No, but seriously, for me, plotting is essential. I do know thriller writers who don’t plot, and I just assume they’re involved in some kind of witchcraft. I need a beat sheet, and I follow it as best I can. I’m a discovery writer, though, which means things happen that I didn’t plan for as I draft–sometimes the killer ends up being an entirely different person!--but then I always return to my beat sheet and make sure the new stuff I come up with is seeded in the right part of the story so the pacing comes out right. Thrillers tend to follow similar plot beats: the discovery of the body, the brush with police, the decision to investigate, the red herrings, etc. (though there are tons of exceptions to the classic thriller structure!) I created my beat sheet with a lot of help from Alexa Donne’s videos on thriller plotting, so I definitely suggest checking those out. I also suggest reading as many thrillers as you can get your hands on, to figure out how to write in the genre–and how to subvert those expectations, once you’re ready.
Then in terms of balancing all this out with the character arc and romance–Story Genius is my character arc bible. The book explains how a strong character arc will start with a character’s “misbelief”–something that happened to them before the story started that informs the way they see the world. For example in GIRLS WHO BURN, Addie’s mother abandoned the family when Addie was little, and since then, Addie’s had this idea that she’s the kind of person who drives other people away. That’s one of the reasons she blames herself for her sister Fiona’s death–she thinks if she’d just been a better sister, Fiona wouldn’t have gone off alone that night. This also informs her relationship with Seth–she doesn’t understand it when he expresses interest in her, because she considers herself unloveable.
And yes, tying all this in with the thriller beats is a challenge! What I love is the advice I heard somewhere–I can’t remember where–that every scene in your story needs to serve 2 purposes. Often those 2 purposes are moving the plot forward and developing character. So for my book, I have scenes where Addie and Seth are driving off somewhere to chase a lead, but on the drive end up in a conversation about where they’ve come from and what they mean to each other. BUT you have to be careful not to slow down the pacing with long conversations, especially in a thriller, and it can be hard to recognize when you’re doing that. I think that’s where critique partners, beta readers, and ultimately, an editor, is essential: they’re able to spot things where you as the writer can’t. Then it’s just a matter of tightening the romance and character arc stuff so as not to mess with the pacing.
5. What do you think is the difference between thrillers, mysteries, and suspense? Do readers expect different things?
Haha this is such a hard question, since as I discovered when on sub with my “suspenseful contemporary”, people are eager to throw lots of things into the “thriller” category.
So I think the main difference, or so I’ve read, is that mysteries don’t necessarily need to involve danger; they’re more about a detective, professional or amateur, solving a crime (think Sherlock Holmes.) It’s more about the puzzle than worrying about the protagonist in danger.
Suspense novels–which is what I suspect my YA contemp actually was–are more about the reader reading on to find out what happens or happened, not necessarily the protagonist actively trying to solve a crime. Big Little Lies is a good example of a suspense novel–you find out at the beginning that someone is dead, then you spend the novel reading about the events leading up to that death and figuring out why it happened.
Whereas a with a true thriller, there needs to be a mystery to solve, and an element of danger present throughout the novel. It’s more about the push/pull between the protagonist and antagonist as the protagonist tries to solve the crime before the antagonist catches up with them and stops them–often by trying to kill them, too.
6. Do you know when you’re at risk of burnout? What’s your form of self-care?
I have two small children for whom I am the primary caregiver, so yes, the burnout risk is real! For me, time to myself and time to be active is absolutely essential. I try and go on a solo walk for at least an hour, at least 4 times a week. If I don’t get in my walks, I definitely feel the effects on my mental health. It’s such a challenge when you have little kids because they are so needy, but I’m fortunate to have a supportive partner and family nearby to give me a break when needed.
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!
7. Favorite thriller novels that haven’t yet been adapted into movies/tv shows.
I mean, The Secret History is one I’ve always wanted to see adapted. And I would love for them to adapt the rest of Tana French’s books, especially The Secret Place (they adapted her first two books a few years back but I have Issues with that adaptation, so would also like a redo on those.) My mentor Rebecca Barrow’s first thriller Bad Things Happen Here is another fave I think would make a great TV show. I also recently got to read Perfect Little Monsters, by Cindy R X He, and It’s Only a Game, by Kelsey Yu, who are two of my fellow 2024 debut YA thriller authors, and they are AMAZING–I think both books would make incredible TV series. Also Laurie Elizabeth Flynn’s The Girls Are All So Nice Here would make an amazing movie or TV show!
8. Unpopular book or writing opinion?
You do not need to pay for a professional editor if you are planning on traditionally publishing your book. Of course there are some amazing, legit editors out there and of course they can help you with your novel, but there are also a ton of people calling themselves editors out there who don’t have the experience or the skills to help, and I think it can be difficult for newer writers to differentiate between the legit ones and the less legit ones. Also, self-editing is such an important skill to learn, and you won’t learn how to do it if you’re always outsourcing it. Also, you can get just as good help from an amazing critique partner–a critique partner is free, plus the right critique partner can end up being an invaluable friend and supporter throughout your publishing journey. Now, it can take a while to find the right critique partners, especially now that so many mentoring programs no longer exist–I found most of mine through Author Mentor Match. But I promise you, investing the time into finding your people and learning how to self-edit can be much more valuable than just paying an editor. I have seen so many people saying you have to pay for an editor before querying and that is NOT TRUE. I have never paid for an editor, and I have a book deal with a big 5! This is a drum I will continue to beat for as long as people keep spreading that myth, haha.
9. Your publisher is holding a murder mystery party in honor of your release. The host are…
David Fincher and Tania French
Gillian Flynn and Anthony Hopkins
An Alfred Hitchcock Hologram
Tana French forever!
MK Pagano writes stories about messy girls, mayhem, and murder.
When she’s not busy pondering the angst of fictional people, she can be found reading (from her own TBR and that of her children's), dreaming of restoring an old French chateau, and wandering the weirder parts of New Jersey, where she currently resides with her family.
Goodreads link https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/62085117-girls-who-burn
Website link https://mkpagano.com/