A friend of mine from my MFA Program emailed me over the weekend, which I'll just add a quick aside and tell you that is one of the biggest benefits of an MFA Program. A writing community. No matter where you're writing, you'll need a community of likeminded people to act as a writing network (who is taking submissions), a social network, and a soft place to land when you get one more rejection. But I digress.
My friend is a charming southern writer with an incredible wit and an amazing voice in his creative nonfiction writing. And like most writers, he's stressed that the agent/editor process is so stinking slow. He asked for advice, which if you haven't figured it out, I'm pretty happy to dole out in long missives, but he also asked if I would introduce him to my agent. Here's my long-winded answer to his questions on querying, agents, and submissions:
The techniques I suggested to my friend will work for you once you finish a project and start hunting a publisher or agent. But there's more here than just how to find an agent. Writing is a solitary practice, and for some of us, that's reason enough to write, but even the introverts among us need to build a tribe of creative people as part of their writing community. My friend who emailed this week has written reference letters for me, let me know when there was a job opening at his university, and critiqued my cover letter and CV. We help each other, because that's what communities do.
Maybe publishing wouldn't be so hard if we worked together rather than wandering around the publishing wilderness alone.
A writer does the same. We tear things apart to figure out the how and why, so we can duplicate the techniques in our own writing. Reading is the primary means of learning to write, which is why it makes me sad when new writers tell me they "don't read." I typically sic Stephen King on their heretic asses:
Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. (King)
Reading as a writer is a good talent to have, as reading is the sole training ground for writers. You don't have to have a background in "how to write fiction," you don't have to have an undergraduate degree in Literature or an MFA in Creative Writing in order to be a writer. You just need to start as a reader.
But as often as English teachers or writing professors or well-meaning friends tell you to "read like a writer," most of them aren't as explicit at what they mean by that. Some call it close reading, because you're reading very carefully, but I like the phrase read like a writer, because it gives reading a purpose. I'm reading like a writer so that I can become a writer (or a better writer).
Mike Bunn, in his essay "Read Like a Writer," says that
When you Read Like a Writer (RLW) you work to identify some of the choices the author made so that you can better understand how such choices might arise in your own writing. The idea is to carefully examine the things you read, looking at the writerly techniques in the text in order to decide if you might want to adopt similar (or the same) techniques in your writing. (Bunn)
Before we know what to write, we need to know how to write, and the how is reading like a writer. Asking questions, annotating, figuring out how a writer accomplished a certain technique. Like the seamstress, we are taking apart a shirt so that we can use it as a pattern for making our own shirt.
Mimicry is part of the learning process. In middle school I wrote a noir detective story my teacher said sounded "borrowed." Nevermind that her destructive commentary became that negative voice in my head (and most writers have them). The point is that I started at a point of mimicry, but I grew past it. I learned the rules so I knew when, where, and how to break them effectively. I still read like a writer, and I'm reading a book a week (or more). I read across the card catalog: fiction and nonfiction, literature and genre fiction like romance, mystery, thrillers, women's fiction, and just about any genre but horror (sorry Stephen King). Speaking of Stephen King, he continues the quote about the value of reading with the following:
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in … Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway" (King).
Reading is an invaluable part of a writer's toolbox. In fact, it may be THE essential tool, but only if you're reading like a writer. So what does that mean? Check out Mike Bunn's article, published free as part of an OER (Open Education Resource), for specific, concrete ideas on what it means to read like a writer. Also, see the video below on how to annotate as you read.
“Dear Professor Skaggs,” a recent post on social media started. The writer was inquiring about MFA programs and was concerned about her age and the actual value of an MFA degree. First, I assured her that age has nothing to do with literary success.
One of my creative cohort in my MFA program was a 22-year-old when she started, the youngest person ever accepted into the program, straight out of her undergraduate degree. She is talented, driven, and will likely be a PhD before she’s 30. But she is by no means representative of our group, which skews older with many looking for a retirement sideline rather than a life’s vocation, and many of us in between those two diverse bookends. Neither goal is wrong, in and of itself, and none of these demographic groups are better served by the MFA.
Writing, in fact, is democratic, and does not discriminate by age or other demographic detail. When you look at when an author is first published, there is no statistical “perfect” age for writing.
One example of writers starting after forty is Lee Childs who writes the Jack Reacher novels. Childs has a unique perspective on writing, in that writers mature with age and have more depth. He says writing is the “ideal career to start later in life.”
Agatha Christie, started much earlier, writing poetry, and earning literary awards, as a child. “But it was her sister’s challenge to write a detective story that would later spark what would become her illustrious career.” She became a published novelist at the age of 26 (“How Christie Wrote”).
Stephenie Meyer has sold more than 85 million copies of her book Twilight. She was 35, so nearly a decade older than Christie, and yet, wildly successful in her field. Her inspiration is quite different as well. She wasn’t challenged into writing a novel, she dreamed it. “Once a stay-at-home mom, Stephenie says the idea for Twilight came to her in a dream.”
JK Rowling didn’t dream her inspiration. She waited for it, specifically while waiting for a train “traveling from Manchester to London King’s Cross … Over the next five years, she began to plan out the seven books of the series” (“JK Rowling Biography”). The first Harry Potter was published when she was 32, and the last when she was 42.
Bukowski was 51 and Laura Ingalls Wilder was 64. Writing knows no limitations of age or experience, but that wasn’t the writer’s only concern in her message to me.
Her post continued, “I am considering applying to MFA Creative Writing programs, knowing that lots of folks think it's not a worthy degree.” She’s worried that the study of writing is a waste, a frivolous degree. In respect to the merits of an MFA, I answered,
I'm not one who believes the MFA is without merit, but I think you need to go into it knowing what your expectations are and how you can achieve them through the program. A big part of most MFA programs is close reading, which means a big chunk of your time is spent reading, studying, and writing about the work of writers in your genre to learn what is effective or ineffective. On top of that you have your creative writing element, plus some programs require a critical thesis in addition to the creative thesis. It is definitely hard work. There are pros and cons.
I went into the MFA to become a better writer, and I believe that element was effective, but I was also working (teaching) and raising kids, so I exhausted myself and it took some time to recover creatively, but I met wonderful people who will remain part of my writing network for life, and I studied under some amazing writers. It really is what you make of it.
When we enter into an MFA program, we go into it knowing that not all of us 22-year-old wunderkinds. We’ve had to work jobs, endure hardships, and reclaim ourselves before we chose to write.
There is no right time to start writing, as long as you start.
Food for thought if you are in or considering an MFA: Why are you in an MFA program? What do you hope to achieve? How much time, energy, and creativity are you willing to expend?
Years ago, as a new single mom, I got a job working in the optical department at Wal-Mart. First off, that’s a really weird and unexpected place to find a writer, and second, it wasn’t exactly in my career plan, but I needed a job, and Wal-Mart was hiring.
We had to go through a week of classes and group discussions with other new hires back in the HR section. One discussion asked us to introduce ourselves and say why we wanted to work at Wal-Mart. Note the phrasing: wanted. Along the way, we each told socially acceptable lies about why we wanted (not needed) to work at the big box store in the sky. One young man, with messy dark hair and sad eyes, broke the mold, however. He looked around the table at the eight of us sitting there, and said, “I graduated from college… and then… life didn’t go as planned.”
Truer words, my friend.
That moment when life doesn't go as planned? That's conflict
Conflict “arises because something is not going as expected” (Kress 13). Conflict belongs in the early part of your story, so readers want to know what happens next. If nothing happens, if life goes as planned, where’s the conflict? Where’s the interest? “But no matter what kind of conflict your story explores, its nature should be hinted at in your opening, even though the development of the conflict won’t occur until later” (Kress 13).
Let’s take a look at my favorite Harry Potter. There is an implied conflict from the outset as Professor McGonagall, who we don’t know much about yet, says that the Dursleys are the “worst sort of Muggles” in the movie version, and that you “couldn’t find two people who are less like us” (Rowling 13) in the book. Readers see the conflict developing within the first chapter, and that conflict between Harry and the Dursleys goes until the last book in the series.
Along with that conflict, the larger conflict with Voldemort is implied here as well. McGonagall mentions that the only one Voldemort is afraid of is Dumbledore. She relates that Harry’s parents have been killed, by Voldemort, and somehow, a baby—Harry—survived. He was the boy that lived.
As writers, we need to establish that conflict early so the reader wants to stick with our story. We don’t always know—going in—the various layers of conflict within our story, so once we finish the draft, we need to evaluate the level of conflict and where it begins.
The novel I’m working on now is a straight fiction novel (as opposed to romantic suspense). The first time through, in the original draft, I wrote quickly and recognized some of the conflicts right away, but it wasn’t until I finished the novel that I recognized the conflict that wound from the beginning to the end. On the rewrite, I’m adding in hints of this conflict throughout, including the first chapter, so I can ensure the conflict is enough to sustain the reader.
Looking back at our Harry Potter book, we see conflict in the first paragraph: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense” (Rowling 1).
The implied promise here is a conflict between the Dursley’s expectation of “perfectly normal” and the “strange” and “mysterious.”
For your own writing:
Kress, Nancy. Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles, & Ends. Writer’s Digest Books, 2011.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic Press, 1997.
If we read much or often, and if we're writers we should, then we will soon find our world expanded through the beauty, struggle, and/or reality of another writer's work. One writer who does that for me is Tim O'Brien.
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.
As we read through Jimmy Cross' story, we see how he copes with the war through imaginings about the elusive Martha, who keeps pieces of his soul clean (notice how he cleans his hands before reading her letters) while the rest of him is "dirtied" by war. It is a painful and personal story that hits me in the feels every single time I read it. O'Brien's style is very direct, yet he buries the truth within his narration, circling ever closer to the true moment by recycling the story and its impact on every other character in the story.
I've written before about how this short story has on more than one occasion caused me to write about the things that I carry, the tangible and intangible. I carry a messenger bag and a laptop. I carry parental guilt and debilitating fear.
What do you carry?
They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”
You're only human
Many (although certainly not all) writers are perfectionists. We (as I include myself in that number) want everything to be perfect.
But, there's that whole "human" thing going on behind the scenes is messing with our stats, and not a single story, poem, song lyric, or novel will be as good as that "perfect" image in our head. And it will kill us if we don't let it go.
No, I'm not exemplifying hyperbole. The kind of stress perfectionism places on the human psyche has real consequences on our health.
Amanda Ruggeri writers in February of this year, "The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential" (BBC.com), and the physical manifestation of our perfectionism includes depression, anxiety, self-harm, OCD, binge eating, anorexia, PTSD, insomnia, fatigue, headaches, and early mortality.
I have a writer friend with far more publications than my own, and who writes for a major traditional publisher. Each time this writer gets edits from the editor (sometimes numbering in the thousands of comments in MS Word), this friend goes into a deep depression and can't even finish reading the revision letter before running for the M&Ms. And I completely understand that level of angst.
I was raised with the middle-class work ethic of my parents and grandparents, to whom complaining was weakness and giving compliments to their children was coddling. Obviously, they had some serious issues to work out (or they were editors in the making), but the idea behind their work ethic has remained an indelible part of American culture. Work hard, play hard, write hard, create as fast as you can.
But creativity doesn't work the same way as body building or climbing the corporate ladder.
In past posts I've mentioned my crazy publication schedule, which, BTW, was my own dang fault. I had already gone through an MA program and was in the process of shopping a novel when I joined my MFA program. The book sold, and was coincidentally released while I was at my first MFA residency in the summer of 2015. Between 2015-2017, I completed all my coursework while maintaining an intense publication schedule that included writing and publishing 6 novels and a novella, in addition to my creative nonfiction essay collection which I am currently submitting to publishers.
In many ways, that crazy publication schedule while attending school AND working up to 4 jobs and raising my kids was a result of my upbringing and the expectations of a strong work ethic. It was also the result of fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, impostor syndrome... The list goes on and on.
And once I graduated with my MFA, I crashed. There was no creativity left. I had expended it all and didn't take the time to refill my well, as Julia Cameron would say (The Artist's Way). I had attempted to impose my middle-class work ethic on my creative muse, and she was not amused. The creative crash was the natural result of my actions.
Writers everywhere struggle with perfectionism. In a perfect world (pun intended), we would continue to write as we struggled for elusive perfection, but in reality, perfectionism stifles our natural talents and creative impulses into what some would call Writer's Block.
So let's stop seeking perfection. Let's stop worrying about perfect grades, perfect essays, perfect stories, and perfect lives. None of those things exist, or if they exist (as in a 4.0 GPA), they will injure us in the process of attainment.
The result of chasing perfection is a creative coma, and we are better off to write at a slow and steady rate than to burn in the fire of frantic production.
As you head into the next season of your writing, and whatever that entails for you, consider the cost of perfectionism. Of course we want to write our best, we want our editor and publisher to like our work, but we can't control their feelings. We can only control the work.
The goal here is not perfection. The goal is growth.
What perfectionist tendencies do you have? Which perfectionist goal can you leave behind and replace with creative growth?
Reading as a writer changes us, both as writers and readers. When I first started writing (but a decade before I was published), I would read and re-read my favorite author to try to get a feel for her rhythm in pacing, sentence length, paragraph length, and chapter length, but the reading and re-reading wasn't active enough, so I started typing out the first 3 chapters of her book to try to get a sense of her pacing at the opening of a novel. Since I'm a fast typist, I started to get an intuitive feel for her natural patterns. She was an historical writer, and at the time I thought that's where my interest lay, and it helped me in big ways and small. I still have a natural feel for chapter length, scene length, and how to start a book.
What I was doing wasn't mimicry, but more like a painter who learns the brush strokes and techniques of a master painter before s/he is ready to paint her/his own masterpiece.
When I went into my MFA program, we had to read and write a critical response on THREE books each month (for two years). At the time, I was so exhausted, I didn't see what I was learning until it was over, but it taught me to read critically and in such a way that it's hard to turn off. I honestly don't want to read every text critically. Sometimes, I want to shut off the writer-mode and enjoy a good book in the same way I enjoy Rom-Com and Action Adventure movies. I just want to enjoy them for what they are. They're not critically acclaimed think pieces, but they give me some much needed laughter and relief from life stresses.
Years after I started the writing process, I finally acknowledged that I wasn't an historical writer. I wanted to be, and I still enjoy reading them, but I don't have the right voice and tone for historical, and it took years of trial and error to find my true genre home. I still read widely, as I did when I worked for the library, in nearly every genre (except horror...because I would never sleep if I did). When I've gone through several disappointing "new" books, I often turn to my favorite authors and re-read novels that I enjoyed, but when I'm reading them for the second time, that little writer voice in my head comes out and starts intruding on my reading time. I catch myself mentally editing, or noticing that particular writer's tic. And it dampens my reading pleasure.
I've learned my writing craft--honed my writer's toolkit--by reading and re-reading books and passages, but when it comes time to simply read, I often have to find a new book so I can read purely for enjoyment. Eventually, I'll get around to thinking about the book as a writer, but sometimes, a writer simply needs to turn off the criticism and enjoy the book for what it is.
In what ways has reading as a writer changed you as a writer? As a reader? And is that a good thing, or bad?
Happy Writer Wednesday. I'm cross posting a video this week as I'm on the road taking my daughter to college (cue crocodile tears). See my video and follow up with the link below for questions you can ask when you're critiquing or being critiqued.
Late post today as--after a full day of yucky chores getting the kids ready for back to school (what happened to starting after Labor Day?)--I headed to the gym. Not out of strong desire, but rather my son is on a M/W/F schedule, and I don't want to be "that mom" who drops and goes. So I go in. And if I go in, then I should probably, you know, work out.
Most of my life, I've had a love/hate relationship with running. I like it--after I've done it, but getting started is like pulling the cord on a lawnmower that's been sitting in the garage for 8 months. I know this about myself, so I always give myself a bailout. I start running, and after 15 minutes, if I really don't want to continue, I can bail. Typically, that 15 minutes is enough for some feel good hormones to kick in and I can finish the workout. I can't think of a single time when I started that 15 minutes and bailed, but that little white lie, "you can quit" gets me started every single time. I have to lie to myself for my own good.
Writing is often like that.
There are writing days when we really, really, really don't want to write. <fill in your favorite "reason" that today is a bad day to write>
Life puts demands on our time. Kids, family, day job, spouse, pets, and all we really want is a dose of Netflix and a glass of wine. When those days happen, I give myself the same bailout opportunity. IF I start writing, and after 15 minutes I still want to binge watch Dexter, fine. But I have to write for the full 15 minutes first. And like running, once I start writing, the endorphins kick in and I keep going. I just need to lie to myself to get started.
So when you have one of those days, <fill in your favorite "reason" that today is a bad day to write>, you only have to do one thing.
You guessed it. Lie. Tell yourself that you only have to write for 15 minutes today. I'm guessing that once you start, you won't want to quit after 15 minutes. :)
Writer Reference (Blogroll)
Genre by any other name
He for She
A Little is Enough
Writing 17 minutes at a time
The Unlisted List:
The best women nonfiction writers.
Aubrey Hirsh' Beginner's Guide to publishing with format templates and more
Agent Query 15 posts on writing query ltrs
Platform Action Plan
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.