One of the most common suggestions I make to students in the MFA program is to include more analysis of the works they read. There is a difference between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer (and learning to analyze). An MFA is not simply a writing degree. Of course, MFA students will be writing, and are writing, quite a bit, but the most time is spent on reading and analyzing what other writers have done. Stephen King has famously said "[i]f you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write."
Being a writer is first being a reader, and many (most) writers learn through their reading to become writers. In an MFA program, we focus on the valuable work that reading does to writing skills. During my MFA, I read and wrote critical analyses on three books each month for the first two years of the program. I was numb by the end, but I learned to be quite efficient and effective at reading critically. It has taken me longer afterward to incorporate what I learned into my writing, but that element is equally valuable.
We read critically, we write analytically, and then we reflect on the elements and apply them to our own writing.
Summary (a brief description of the plot) is lower-level learning. Analysis is higher-level (or critical) reading and writing. And genre doesn't matter. From romance to literary fiction, writers need to analyze what other (sometimes great) writers have written.
But all reading is not created equal. When we read for pleasure, hopefully we can actually enjoy the work without picking it apart (I really struggle with this). But when we read as a writer, our job is to pick the work apart. We should read slowly to see the brush strokes of the writer we're studying. We should ask questions of the text.
First, Taylor D wrote:
For most stories, conflict drives the characters and plot while causing readers to become invested in watching it all play out. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the conflict arises during a meal the main character has with someone they had trusted. Over the course of the dinner conversation, the main character comes to feel utterly alone in this strange world, realizing that their allies may be more foe than friend. As the main character attempts to understand how the person he trusted to help him, and who had been doing just that up until this point, he continues the conversation in hopes of discovering what has caused this shift. “He looked at me curiously. ‘Well, then, to put it this way. There are some persons in court who are, in your phrase, in favor with the king, but who do not favor your presence or your mission here’” (Le Guin 15). This sets up the conflict in the book, that the main character is attempting to make changes to a world where he is not welcome.
The way in which Le Guin creates and reveals the conflict, through a conversation between two acquittances, one who has all but betrayed the other, is something I want to explore in my own writing. As the reader, this intrigued me, and I wanted to read more to find out what exactly the main character was doing on this planet that would cause others to not want him there. I found the way the conflict between the two characters gave way to a large conflict in the book and it is something I will attempt in my own writing, using my characters and their conversations as a way to create and reveal conflict, both interpersonal and on a larger plot scale.
Taylor provides a summary of the scene to provide context for the initial conflict, and then looks at evidence from the book (quotes), and finally, discusses how Le Guin's technique impacted her (Taylor) as a reader, and then figures out what exactly she has learned from the reading.
Now, let's look at what Candace M. wrote:
It is only right to look at storytelling elements first because they are vital and occur in all stories, Adeyemi and Rosoff are not exempt. In Children of Blood and Bone, the reader is thrown into the mind of Zeile. We are able to experience her desperation and hope that she will be chosen for the graduation battle, “Its all I can do not to scream. I dig my nails into the marula oak of my staff and squeeze to keep from fidgeting. Beads of sweat drip down my back, but I can’t tell if it’s from dawn’s early heat or from my heart slamming against my chest” (Adeyemi 3). These opening lines quickly and effectively clue the reader into the inner desire of an unnamed character. He or she is nervous yet excited and desiring to be selected for what we will soon know as a graduation combat match. Conflict is presented off the bat at the possibility that our narrator may not be chosen. Adeyemi goes on to mention that our narrator has been passed over for “moon after moon…,” thus verifying what the reader has been led to believe; participation in this match is a must (Adeyemi 3). The excitement of a combat match also aids in creating pacing and suspense.
Here, you can see that Candace's style of analysis is different. She has a back and forth between her discussion and evidence (quotes) from the book. She reaches a conclusion in this paragraph without discussing how she (Candace) will use this information. Later, however, Candace adds her own analysis about her writing:
Although Rosoff’s lack of dialogue is a showstopper, Adeyemi’s use of dialogue to reveal conflict, details about her characters, and bring the fictional land of Orisha to life is nothing to sleep on. Prior to reading Adeyemi’s work I really tried to find equal balance between dialogue and narration, I saw this as a rule to writing. Adeyemi, doesn’t seek to balance dialogue with narration but uses her dialogue in a meaningful way so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. My current project could greatly benefit from a revision that focuses more on meaningful dialogue and narration so that they are being used to drive the plot rather than fill the space.
While most writers won't need or want to write an academic paper analyzing a work of fiction, the act of analyzing is an invaluable tool and can be accomplished while reading. Writers should consider writing techniques as they read them, and then consider how and in what ways the reading and analysis can impact their own writing.
Embrace analysis. It will help set your writing on fire.
ADDENDUM:This kind of analysis also helps writers to critique other writers. Once a writer has torn apart a book by someone like Stephen King, they should have the skillset and vocabulary to help critique and improve the work of their critique partners.
King, Stephen. On Writing. Scribner, 2000.
To a young (frustrated) writer:
Writer's block is real, so don't blame or punish yourself. You'll only exacerbate the problem. A couple things you can try:
1) Julia Cameron's suggestion (The Artist's Way) would be an "artist's date," which essentially means get out of the house. Play. Do anything not writing related to refill your creative well.
Go somewhere and people watch. Go to a play, an art exhibit, a concert, or a movie. Go play laser tag or paint ball. Go jump on a trampoline or ride a bike. Give your muse a chance to recover. Make it something that works for you and your type of "play."
I've had students go to Painting with a Twist (you, a canvas, and a glass (bottle) of wine. Another student, who is also an actor, was encouraged to Improv a conversation with their protagonist.
2) My suggestion: write something else, and give yourself permission to write badly, or as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, write a "shitty first draft."
Write a weird short story, bad poetry, or substandard music lyrics. Sometimes you just need to switch gears until you're ready to work on that project again. I vacillate between Fiction and Creative Nonfiction for this very reason. Sometimes I just need a break (and you might too).
3) Do something physical. Run, walk, jog, treadmill. There's something about movement that shakes things loose, creatively.
4) See cartoon below on the potential for the books to write themselves:
5) Watch this video of a letter from sculpture Sol LeWitt to artist/friend Eva Hesse. The language is NSF (not safe for work), but it tends to kick creatives where we need it most:
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.
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?
Happy Wednesday, writers!
This is probably the most controversial part of my RWA conference round-up, so I thought I'd put it first. :)
While at RWA, during the Rita ceremony (the Rita's are the romance industry awards), Suzanne Brockman gave a speech that polarized and edified at the same time. (minute :56 if it doesn't autostart in the right place).
And this additional acceptance speech by Kristin Hannah (I saved this at 1:53. I tried to get it to auto start there, but I'm not sure that translated).
Brockman had very specific and personal complaints about the way in which we shy away from diverse characters in the romance writing industry, as did Rita winner Kristin Hannah (see 1:53 in the video).
I do value diversity and believe we have to work to create a diverse environment in our real world and our writing world. In addition to my teaching at SNHU, I also teach at a community college. We deal with some of these same issues, so I start every semester with the video below. I want my students to know my expectations for the ways in which we treat each other based on "labels" that cannot begin to define a person.
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.