Thoughts on DIY MFA

A few years ago I kept asking myself the question if I should go for an MFA in creative writing. Every time someone would mention it or I’d see an ad, I’d think rosy thoughts about a writing utopia of classmates and teachers who would encourage me and me encourage them in turn and I would suddenly become the writer I’ve always wanted to be. Plus I’d make useful connections I could hopefully turn into a publishing career someday.

But then I’d look at the money and the time and the requirements and realize it wasn’t for me.

I stumbled upon this post the other day about a 1000 Day MFA that you do yourself. It reminded me of why I ultimately decided I shouldn’t do an MFA: the biggest benefit I would get from it is self-discipline. (There are others, of course: the mentoring, the connections, etc.) I realized what I really wanted was someone to stand over my shoulder and make me write. Make me read. Make me be disciplined. And I realized that if I really want to be a writer that badly, that person standing over my shoulder should be me.

So a DIY MFA sounds really appealing. I’m not so certain of the specific schedule laid out in that post, but I could certainly tailor my own program to fit my needs. (For instance, the schedule says read at least one novel a month. I can’t do that. I would be desperate for more like four books a month.)

Even if I don’t construct some version of my own 1000 day program, I think it’s important to think about daily habits and how serious this business of writing needs to be. If I am dedicated to my craft and want to accomplish the things I have dreamed about since I was a kid, shouldn’t I make myself into the kind of person who can manage such daily habits on her own without paying $20,000 a year?

(Just so you know, I greatly admire anyone who has gone through an MFA program. There are lots of benefits and reasons to do so. I’m just not in a place where it would benefit me. Perhaps when I’m a more mature writer.)

Don’t Be Afraid to Bring Your Books With You

I have a co-worker who is an incredibly gentle, soft-spoken woman, but who says things that make you realize she has a powerhouse of wisdom behind her and that she could yell truth at you through a single whisper that would change your life forever.

I try to spend as much time around her as I can, just listening to her talk. She’s amazing.

At a meeting last year, she presented us with this TED talk on introversion. In it, Susan Cain talks about how she used to bring loads of books with her to camp, but felt afraid to open up her suit case and take them out to read because all of a sudden the world wasn’t about sitting quietly to read, it was about being outgoing and energetic.

The other day, this co-worker of mine walked in the door, said a quick hi, dumped two bags on the floor, then disappeared again after propping open the door. She came back with three more heavy bags, put them in the same spot, then picked one up. The entryways at my work all have stairs right after them. There is no way you can get anywhere without going up or down stairs. And she is an older woman. Though she is strong, I’m sure, I worry about her sometimes so I offered to carry her bags up for her.

She thanked me and proceeded to her office. I picked up two of the bags (if I wasn’t pregnant I would have tried to take them all), and they were heavier than I expected. I brought them up the two sets of stairs and put them next to her desk. Knowing her well-refined habit of reading, I asked her if they were full of books. She said they were, and went on to say that just having them with her motivates her to get work done. Because if she is able to get all the things done she came in to do, she might have some time leftover to read a book.

When I was just about to go off to college, I packed my backpack with a lot of books and journals and even some drawing pencils “just in case” I had some time to delve into them. They were company. They were friends. They always brought me joy. But my older brother looked at that and said “Oh, Reesha. You’ll learn pretty quickly that you only bring with you what you need in college.”

He was kind of right. I was carrying around way too much weight in my backpack for it to be healthy that first semester, and was saddened to realize that I had to stop carrying EVERY book I was currently reading for fun, on top of my course books and notebooks, and EVERY journal I was either writing or drawing in.

But after college, I always kind of felt like it was wrong to bring unnecessary books with me for some reason. The idea of practicality stopped me from overloading myself with the fun things just in case I might have time to get into them.

And I think my life was less rich for it.

When I got a smart phone, I felt I was in heaven for the first two months. I could read books anywhere and they didn’t cost me an ounce of lifting. I could even write, if I was determined enough. But I soon found myself abandoning those activities on my phone because they just weren’t as romantic as the real thing. Sure, I could capture a thought if I needed to. Or I could take in a paragraph here and there that I needed for information. But reading or writing for pleasure wasn’t really a part of it.

After carrying my co-worker’s books up those steps and realizing that even at her age, she insists on bringing books with “just in case”, it warmed something inside me that had long been ignored.

I felt like I had been given permission to bring things along that I don’t strictly need, no matter how much they weigh. Books are companions. And reading them on a phone is like trying to connect with a loved one through face-time: sure, you can hear and see them, but it just isn’t the same as having them over for a long weekend visit.

I’m very glad I have the ability to read books anywhere at anytime. The thought that I can carry over 3,000 books in my pocket makes me giddy sometimes. God bless technology.

But sometimes you just need the real thing.

So, first I felt like it was suddenly ok to bring books and journals with me again. Even to places where I wasn’t certain I would have time to get into them. But then, I decided to hold onto that forbidden feeling.

The books I read with a flashlight under the covers were always so much more fun than the ones I read during the day on the weekend sitting on the couch. (Actually I rarely read with a flashlight because there was a very powerful street light right outside my window that never turned off. How was I supposed to resist night reading when there was such a perfect set-up? But you get the idea.)

My point is, don’t be afraid to bring your books with you. Even if you don’t get the chance to read them. Susan encouraged her viewers to open up your suitcases and bring out the books you brought. I would encourage you to fill your suitcases with books in the first place.

My husband has been after me about making my bag lighter as it is. He’s started to brainstorm ways I can whittle down the amount of stuff I bring to take care of my toddler. Which is great to have him help innovate my carrying techniques. But I think I’m going to insist on at least one book, and one journal. At least until after I’m done being pregnant. Then I can bring more.

Books are worth it. More importantly, our brains are worth it. Do you even know all the things reading does to our brains? I think that’s another post for a later time.

Community

“I’m giving myself permission to post whatever the hell I want, so I can just get past the internal gatekeeper slash critic who prevents me from using the one space on the Internet that is entirely mine.” – Will Wheaton

From his blog which you can find here.

I have started many blogs and they have fallen by the wayside because I either tried to follow what seemed like good advice about being a niche voice, or I was trying too hard to come up with brilliant posts.

And I forgot that this place on the internet is entirely mine.

Rather, I hope that it is entirely ours.

Back in July of 2016, I got a new job at a place that highly values community and I was like “Ok, sure. Community is good. But I’m here to do a job.” I very quickly learned just how important community is and the difference it could make. It’s not just a good thing for a blog or an author or readers. It’s THE thing. It is exactly what I want for this blog.

So please join me here in this space, and know that you are welcome to feel at home here. I hope to foster a little pocket of community where we can explore and get excited about many things, have fun, educate one another, etc.

I’ll admit I don’t really know how to do that yet, but I’m going to be thinking about it a lot in the next few weeks. If you have any suggestions on ways to make this space more welcoming and more community oriented, I would love to hear from you.

Excited to build this space together.

Self-publishing Thoughts

I keep flip flopping between these two thoughts:

“I definitely want to go the traditional publishing route. Working with an agent and a publisher would be so much fun!”

and

“I am definitely going to self-publish because it’s such a viable option now and I could have control over every part of the process. It would be exciting to do it all myself.”

Right now I’m on the second part of the flip flop. What changed my mind?

I was making a writing schedule for the next two years to plan out when my book(s) would be finished and when I could reasonably expect them to be ready for publication if I put myself on deadlines. This is something I’m always doing and redoing. It’s a way to procrastinate from writing, actually. Even though it usually ends up getting me to think “Oh wow. I better get to it, then.”

When I got to the part where I submit my finished and polished and edited novel to an agent, I started writing up all kinds of schedules for when to start writing my next book and when I would do each round of submissions. And then I hit a problem. I couldn’t determine with any certainty when, or if ever, I would land an agent and a publishing deal. And it made me stop to think about all the rejection letters I’ve gotten on my previous project, and what that whole thing felt like.

I was never very disappointed with any particular rejection letter that I can recall. I expected to get at least some rejections. That wasn’t what made me stop and cringe at the idea of going through the process again. It was the idea that I would put lots and lots of work into seeking out a traditional publishing route, and not be guaranteed any results. For my last project, I spent hundreds of hours writing and tweaking queries, personalizing them after researching each agent I was submitting to. I felt really good about having done everything I could to put my best foot forward, including writing a really good novel. But it just never worked out.

Now I am a mom of a toddler, with another one on the way, and I can see my writing time slipping away as I make writing schedules and have to completely block off two months because of giving birth and recovering. So the thought of putting the precious hours I manage to carve out for writing towards marketing and the fact that they may not even pay off makes me kind of sick to my stomach. And not because of the pregnancy either.

Part of the reason I wanted an agent so badly is because I am obsessed with the business side of writing. I think I would actually enjoy being an agent much more than being a writer. (But there’s no way for me to get an internship with an agency while living in Minnesota. Grrrr.) So I really wanted to work closely with one, see them in action, be fascinated by all the wonderful strings they pull and things they do to make writer’s dreams come true.

Well, if I can’t become a literary agent, what better way to satisfy my desire to get in on the nitty gritty of publishing than to self-publish? Plus, in the end, I am guaranteed a result of being published. No promises on how well the book will sell or how many road blocks I will come up against that I will have to solve on my own. But even with traditional publishing, there are no promises.

So that’s where I’m headed, as of today. There may be something along the line in the next few months that makes me want to go back to traditional publishing. Maybe I spot a new agent who is directly looking for what I am writing. Or I start to doubt myself and my abilities to get my own work out there. Or the thought of writing a query letter and sending it off to lots of agents suddenly sounds appealing again.

I know I said I don’t have much time to write. Who does with kids? And that may prove to be the deciding factor since self-publishing takes a lot more time on the author’s part than traditional publishing (or so I’ve been told). But…I still think I can do it. I would rather put in three times the amount of hours than it takes to go the traditional publishing route and know I’ll have something to show for it than put in less time and have nothing.

If anyone has any ideas on how someone from Minnesota could become a literary agent, I’m all ears. Why are there no agencies in Minnesota and why are they all still in New York (and other major cities not near me) when we have such a thing as telecommuting?

(The obvious answer is that one can become a literary agent simply by saying “I am a literary agent” and putting together a website and then waiting for clients. But the thought of doing that scares me because…I would be in charge of people’s dreams and I know what it’s like to be the writer with a dream, hoping they put their trust in the right person. I’m pretty sure I would need an internship or some equivalent to be able to do it right.)

That weird dream that follows you the rest of the day

By Franz Schrotzberg (Own work, Robertsan1, 2009-11-24) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last night I had a dream that I was fumbling around in college, not remembering where my classes were or getting homework done. And I felt panic because there was this big, wide world full of possibilities that was going to pass me by if I didn’t get my life together. I rushed to my dorm (because apparently my dream forgot that I never lived in a dorm during college), grabbed a pen and some sticky notes, and wrote down three lines of something to organize my life. As soon as I did that, the dream-me had a sense of peace, purpose, and excitement. Then I woke up.

Maybe it’s the dream or maybe it was the nice relaxing weekend I had. But today seems filled with a sense of purpose. On my drive into work today, all I could think about was how much stuff I was going to get done, and how it was going to be the right stuff. I figured it couldn’t hurt to do what I did in the dream, so I wrote down three lines of whatever came to my head:

Today I am feeling a sense of purpose.

Today I am supposed to be working on my to do list.

Today I am going to write.

I’ve felt a sense of something negative dogging my thoughts anytime I sit down to write lately. Whether it’s a sense of guilt, or of missing the mark, or of trying to be fake I don’t know. At CONvergence, one writer confessed that he has nightmares every now and then that his publishing company will call him up and say “We’ve discovered you’re not a real writer and we would like all our money back please.” (This is someone who’s published over 20 novels.)

I’m aware that writer’s tend to be hard on themselves. That there are often voices of doubt and weary where there shouldn’t be. To be honest, it kind of amuses me because that is something you don’t often see in the world. Writers are very sweet and at their core, humble. Because we’re all afraid that we’re just faking it, so we’re afraid to be pompous.

Anyways, I just want to say to any writers out there who might feel that cloud of writerly woe hanging over them: tell that cloud “not today”. Today, you are a writer, and today, you get to do what you do best.

May a sense of hearty purpose and peaceful perspective follow you throughout today.

One thing I learned from CONvergence 2015

By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands ([370/365] Ghost fight) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sander van der Wel, Ghost fight, via Wikimedia Commons

I have a whole list of notes that I hope to get around posting here at some point. And this is by no means the only thing I learned at CONvergence. But it’s the one thing that has made the most immediate difference in my writing.

I attended the usual panel of “What I Wish I Would Have Known Before I Started Writing”. This was the first year that I realized, after three years attending, that they do this panel every year, and I’d managed to attend it every time.

This year, someone new to me was on the panel: Wesley Chu, author of The Lives of Tao. He’s not only a successful writer, but a kung fu master. Needless to say his books have plenty of action sequences in them.

And here’s the quote that keeps echoing in my brain whenever I sit down to write: “Fight scenes are just conversations with fists.”

He said that a fight scene isn’t about the choreography, but about what the fight is going to accomplish. Who stands to loose/gain what. Sounds simple enough.

But as I’ve been sitting down to write since the con, I’ve thought about it with scenes that have no action in them at all and realized I need to take the same approach. It’s all about the tension. Who is trying to accomplish what, and what is in their way. I knew this was true on a broader scale with the whole plot of a book, but I hadn’t yet applied it to the chapter level, the paragraph level, and even the sentence level.

More nuggets to come from both agents and authors alike.

Keep some secrets for yourself

François_Moreau_La_jeune_cuisinière

I’ve put everything but the kitchen sink in here.

I took some time this past week to look up one of my early novels. Partly to see how far I’ve come and partly to get a smile out of the totally-enthusiastic-but-deprived-of-anything-mature writing style.

It was set in England in the 1600s. I remember trying so hard to not include dragons in it, because it was supposed to be a historical novel, not a fantasy one. But then there were dragons. And then there were spies. And then there were secret passages, underground tunnels, cults, electronic technology, and a biohazard threatening to wipe out Earth’s population.

Yeah.

It was my first serious novel (I refuse to count the first two that shall not be named or ever let out of their obisdian prisons in the netherworld) and I was determined that it was going to be published someday. What I never really considered is that it wouldn’t be my only novel. So I tried to write about everything I ever wanted to write about in one book.

Smirking at my younger self, I remembered how small a view I had of the publishing world back then. I thought that a writer was someone who wrote one book, got it published easily, then sat back on their laurels raking in money as people absorbed their work and created fandoms about it. I definitely suffered from a case of trying to fabricate epicness in my work.

Today, of course, I know that the publishing world is very different from what I first imagined. And I’ve learned something about world-building for a novel: keep most of it hidden. Not everything has to make it into the book. There can be other novels that include the things you want to write about.

There was also a novel (one of the ones that shall not be named) in which I had no clue what was happening. I didn’t know where the antagonist was for three chapters and basically had him standing in a room for three months not doing anything. The flip side of the idea that the reader doesn’t need to know everything is that you, as a writer, do.

This is starting to border on writing advice, so I’ll pull back. Just let me leave you with this one bit of encouragement: You, as a writer, have every excuse to indulge your world-building tendencies and create a rich and wonderful realm with all the details your heart desires. So go to it! (Just make sure you keep that iceberg well-hidden and only show off what you need to in your novel.)

Good Cop, Bad Cop of Query Writing

By James Campbell (1828 - 1893), via Wikimedia Commons

By James Campbell (1828 – 1893), via Wikimedia Commons

Queries are really hard. Good queries are even harder.
Writing a query is the stage of the writing process that requires you to hack your beautifully honed story down into three paragraphs and sell your soul. Or is it hacking your soul into three pieces and selling your story? I’m not sure. Could be either.
If you are having a bad query writing day, I have two things for you. One will make you feel like you can do no wrong and the other will make you feel like you can do nothing right but it will actually help you improve things.

Here are my go-to blogs for when I need a boost to my query writing process.

Good Cop
For those of us in a sensitive mood who need a boost to our ego, check out Slush Pile Hell. Every time I read the queries on there, I am both horrified that such things exist and pleased that mine sounds nothing like them. I mean, sure, these query letters are all for non-fiction, and I write fiction, so it’s a bit like comparing apples to oranges. But still. If you want to see some truly atrocious writing, go there. But try not to spend more than ten minutes on it, otherwise you start to fear for the future of books and the cynicism kicks in.

Bad Cop
For anyone with really thick skin, (and I mean it. You need skin as thick as an alligator), take a gander at Janet Reid’s blog: The Query Shark. She has posted query after query with critiques, and most of them are ripped to shreds. Harsh but truthful. If you know you need a good shot of honesty, or if you don’t care about your feelings and you just want some direction in how to make your query better, then definitely read Query Shark.
Reid insists that anyone who wants to submit their query to her for critique read through the entire archives of her blog. And that’s 269 queries to date. I’ve started on it. I have to say, I wish I would have done this sooner. I can tell it’s going to take a few months before everything she teaches about query writing finally sinks in. (Pun not originally intended, but then recognized and left in anyway.)

So if you feel rather unmotivated to write a query letter, maybe playing good cop, bad cop on yourself will help. Go read some slush pile, then go get bitten by a shark, and then sit down to write. The world needs your story because you are the only one who can tell it. Please don’t let a little thing like a query deprive us of your voice.

The Hidden Blog Every Writer Should Know About

I call it hidden because it is no longer being updated, and thus, you probably won’t be able to stumble upon it easily. If you do, you probably won’t know what you have found. If you’re anything like me, finding another writing blog but then seeing that the last post was in 2011 and is called “Hiatus” would make me close that browser tab as quickly as I unfollow people who post political debates on Facebook.

But it’s jam packed full of writerly goodness. Pimp My Novel was written by a guy, Eric, on the inside of the publishing business. He gives the dirty (& clean) details of what happens after a book is acquired.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 9.07.44 AM

An oldie but a goodie

I kept seeing Eric appear in the comments of Nathan Bransford’s blog, who was an agent at the time, and thought “wow. He knows a lot. I wish I could get his perspective.” Then Eric started PMN and Nathan proudly announced it on his own blog. The two were an unstoppable team that felt like a college course in how to get published. I wish, I WISH there was a PMN equivalent that was still live, and I WISH Nathan was still an agent. (Though Nathan’s blog still has many posts worth checking out. He still keeps his eye on the industry.)

If you read nothing else over at PMN, read the Profit & Loss 4-part series. Want to know about the spreadsheet publishers use to determine sales projections and whether or not they should offer you a book contract? You can read about it there.

PMN may be outdated in some of its posts (like the analysis of genre sales and which trends are happening in publishing), but I prefer to think of it more as a time capsule.

It was written when eBooks were newer and we weren’t sure how they were going to affect the publishing industry. (Well, ok, we’re still not sure but we’re a lot less worried about it….I think.) His blog posts didn’t even have pictures! That wasn’t part of blogger 101 back then. Pictures were optional and he didn’t need them because his content is so meaty.

Also? The community that the blog created is still a treasure trove. The comments on some of the posts are as informative as the posts themselves. The guest posts are written by great people who have gone on to shape the publishing industry in their own ways. And it makes a great story. I kind of want PMN to be put into children’s book form so that someday I can read it to my children/budding writers: the story of publishing.

It will help you understand the publishing world’s recent history. Knowing where it came from can help you when you feel lost and don’t know where it’s going.

Hope that helps a bit! You probably could have stumbled across PMN by trolling the archives of Nathan Bransford’s blog (which you do, right? ‘Cause you need to), but I figured it couldn’t hurt to point it out.

Writing Space Inspiration

By Matt @ PEK from Taipei, Taiwan via Wikimedia Commons

By Matt @ PEK from Taipei, Taiwan, via Wikimedia Commons

This has been on my mind a lot lately so I might as well write a post and get it out. And not just because we recently moved and all my stuff is … not where it usually is. My desk isn’t even set up yet. This makes me kind of sad, but what better time to think about how to reinvent my writing space?

The practical part of me wants to say “Bogarts! You don’t need a dedicated writing space! That’s what a portable, laptop computer is for. You can write anywhere!”

And then there’s the creative sensitive genius inside of me that sighs. Because it believes that somewhere out there is the perfect desk, the perfect chair, the perfect Warehouse 13-like artifact that could turn my writing sessions into moments of magical perfection. It wonders if lighting does play a roll. Or if it really does matter whether I can see out a window or not. Or if I actually do need a tiny plant named Alfred sitting next to my computer. (This is how I’ve always imagined I would be as a professional writer: shiny laptop, shabby chic desk, and an Alfred plant. No idea why.)

So I turned to the internet and looked up famous writer’s writerly abodes. As should have been expected, that was not conclusive. Jane Austen wrote at a tiny cafe-like desk with no drawers. E.B. White wrote out of a corner in a sparse wooden building on a hard wooden bench. Others surrounded themselves with books and clutter while some kept everything meticulously clean and boring. Then there’s the question of light or no light, seclusion or in the midst of others, comfortable or uncomfortable.

Laptops have changed how a lot of people write by making the writing space no longer about a physical container to hold the tools of the trade. Now, it’s all about how the writer feels, both in their head space and in their physical comfort. I suddenly realized this past week that how I feel when I write my best does not coincide with feeling my best. Sometimes I need discomfort to keep me alert or focused.

Maybe take a look at your writing space today and ask yourself some honest questions. Do you write better when you are uncomfortable? Is your mind focused more when you have other people’s creative juices sloshing around, or do you need a sterile space that is kind of boring?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, then just enjoy perusing the internet for pictures of famous writer’s desks. It’s a lovely way to spend an afternoon and it may help you realize that there is no right or wrong way to arrange your space. Just make sure you are carving out both the time, space, and effort in your life that you need to in order to get that creative work done.

This blog post from Avoiding Apathy not only helped me to think about where I write, but I think it’s also a great example of voice. Wish I could write blog posts like that.

Anyways, go check it out and you can probably find some good inspiration over there. (And yes, I hope to find space in my living room for a Norden because of that post.)

Other links to try for good writing space ideas:

Writerly Life talks briefly about the Writer’s Room of Boston.

Apartment Therapy has a post about spaces people created specifically for writing.

The Write Life has some wonderful pictures of famous writer’s spaces.