Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Unexamined Thesis Is Not Worth Writing

It goes without saying (then why do you feel the need to say it, Ashley?) that one of the major things you get out of an MFA program (and I would probably say the single most important thing) is you are forced to put together a book length work: your thesis. You will not graduate if you do not have this completed, and whether or not you pass is supposed to be gauged on whether or not your committee believes your thesis is publishable.

We come to grad school with different levels of experience. Some of us have written full novels, or story or poetry collections, (and sometimes even gotten them published!) before starting in the program. Some of us have written several random short stories or poems or maybe began work on a novel but never got past the first chapter. But no matter where you’re at when you begin grad school, by the time you finish the program you should have a book ready, or at least one last revision away from ready, to try to get published.

I came to grad school having already decided what I was going to write for my thesis. My entire first year here I brainstormed and made notes on it. I sat down during my first summer break to write the first draft of it and, instead, I wrote almost 300 pages of a completely different novel altogether. Suddenly I realized this is the story I wanted to tell first; this is the one I’d like to try to break in with.

There were a number of reasons for the decision. One was that this new idea had much more of a hook. It’s high concept, as they say, it’s got a much more pitchable premise, an easy to point at quality that I can say, “here, this is unique, this has never been done before, to my knowledge.”

Another reason I changed my mind is because the main character of the new idea was male, and the other book was about a woman. Why does that matter? I firmly believe that there is a smaller audience for books about women. Women, I think, will read anything, whether it’s about a woman or a man, as long as they like it. But many men are not interested in reading about a woman character (they wouldn’t be able to relate, they say. No offence or anything, they pat you on the back and tell you, just don’t understand the way the female mind works).

But more than anything, the reason why I switched ideas is because, when I sat down to actually write the first draft, I just didn’t feel like writing that other one. This one just seemed way more interesting. This novel is far more complicated than anything I had ever attempted before. It’s not your typical chronological relating of events, a lot hinges on the voice of the narrator, the relationships between the various characters are extremely complicated but must be handled with subtlety, and the structure has numerous components that all have to work together perfectly to get the story across in a believable and engaging way.

In short, I guess, it’s a real novel and not a practice novel, like the unfinished ones I had attempted before or the finished and revised one that will never, thank the god of your choice or Lady Luck, whatever you believe in, make it out of the womb that is the file on my computer titled “Failed Attempts.” It’s the sort of thing I certainly wasn’t ready to tackle, nor even realized that I should, before coming to grad school.

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