Sunday, February 22, 2009

You’re Fabulous Kid but Seriously . . . Don’t Quit Your Day Job

One of the most interesting misconceptions that I think people have about creative writing is that it’s a career. Certainly, it can be. There are a few (very few!) lucky creative writers who have either kept their expenses minimal enough or really hit the jackpot on the New York Times Bestseller List so that they are able to make a living off of writing. But most writers have a separate source of income to keep them going and creative writing is the thing they do to add meaning to their life – not to add money to it.

This is really visible in an MFA program, where you are surrounded by successful writers in the faculty - writers with several books published, writers who have won prestigious awards, writers who really know the business. And yet they all have day jobs as teachers.

In my own progress as a writer, I feel the point where I officially stepped over the line separating the wanna-be writers from the actual writers was the moment I realized that writing isn’t a career, that I absolutely was not going to make a living off of it, and at the same time I realized that I didn’t care and that I wanted to really commit myself to it anyway.

One thing that I often feel (wrongfully!) frustrated about in my MFA program is that there is no time spent on the business. We don’t get instruction or advice on finding an agent, on crafting a good cover or query letter, on how to tell whether your project is in line with current market trends. But the truth is this is just as it should be – because creative writing is an art, not a career. I call it a hobby and some people that I know sort of cringe when I say it, like it belittles what we’ve all devoted our lives to. But really, studying in an MFA program doesn’t prepare you for a career as a writer – at best, it prepares you for a career as a teacher, if that’s the route you choose to go. And it helps you hone your craft, your art.

If you’re not writing because you love to write - if you’re doing it because you believe it’s going to make you rich and famous or because you think it would be more fun than getting a “real” job – you’ve probably got some disappointment on the road ahead.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Letting It Be Real

With my thesis defense rapidly approaching, I’m hurriedly trying to make my novel as good as possible by the deadline (which is about a month away). I recently received some really useful feedback from a couple of people who read my novel over the break and then I met with the head of my committee this past Thursday to work out some more ideas for revision. The good news? She doesn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t pass my defense. The bad news? I still have A LOT of revising to do to make it the publishable novel I want it to be.

I’ve had to face something these past few days as I mentally combined all the various feedback I’ve been given and tried to figure out how to address some of the major issues that exist with the ending of the novel. The ending is simply not going to work. It must change. Big deal, right? Well, it was difficult for me to accept this truth because when I set about to write the novel basically all that existed in my mind was the ending: I wanted to figure out how a character could get to the point of making a specific decision, a decision that is very wrong in my eyes. The entire novel blossomed from me trying to work out, in my own head, how somebody would make this decision.

But in the process of writing the novel, the story and the characters within it took on lives of their own. They became more than just an idea and they began to do things that were absolutely right for them to do . . . but made the ending make no sense. My brute refusal to accept that, to try and force the story to end this way simply because that was the original premise for the story, was essentially ruining the entire thing. I think Damien put it best when he told me that he had liked the book the entire way through until the ending, which ultimately made him angry and made him hate every single character completely. A pretty disappointing way to leave a story. This was not at all the reaction I was going for - obviously.

I realized, after really struggling with it, that the ending had to change. My thesis advisor made a wonderful suggestion for a good medium between the ending I had originally wanted to have and the ending that I absolutely did not want because I thought it would be too happy of an ending. Ultimately I realized that this new ending was more heartbreaking (the reaction I was going for all along) but even more important, it was way more complicated and real. This is the way this character would deal with the events that unfold throughout the course of the novel.

I feel like this was an important lesson about writing that I was going to have to learn sooner or later: that you can’t stay married to a premise. Or specific scenes, for that matter, or bits of dialogue or narration. Really, part of revising well is being able to cut and change the things that you love because they just don’t fit with this world and the characters within it.

For me writing is a very organic experience, I just sit down in front of the computer and type whatever pops into my head. As a result, the characters become organic, too. They live and breathe and do whatever the hell they want to do, regardless of what I wanted this story to be. In a lot of ways that means I have to give up my right to be the world creator – I’m more of an observer. The recorder of what happens. But if I impose my own vision of what this story should be or who these characters are it’s more likely to just destroy the whole thing, make it feel forced, scripted, created and, as a result, unbelievable. And not at all worth reading.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


All the second years and even some of the thirds out here are scurrying to get ready for the Comps Exam. Many and maybe even most MFA programs require students to pass an exam over a lengthy reading list – ours is forty books long, although I’ve heard of programs that have as many as two-hundred and some that have as few as twenty.

I took my Comps last year and I can remember the anxiety of the days leading up to the exam and I can certainly relate to how many of my fellow MFAers are feeling right now. I started reading from my list the summer before I started in the program. Forty books isn’t really that many, if you think about it, and I was actually originally planning on just trying to get it out of the way my first year. I read about a quarter of the list before I started the program and then during my first semester here, between teaching for the first time, getting used to how different grad school was than what I had expected it to be, not to mention adjusting to life in Alaska, which is pretty much just as strange as you might imagine, I sort of let the reading slide and decided I would take the exam my second year, like you’re supposed to.

Another full year to finish the list? That seemed like no problem! But my first summer out here I began excitedly working on the first draft of my thesis and once I had that together I started revising and revising and revising it . . . By the winter before my Comps date, I still had close to half the list left to read and the overwhelming feeling that I was not going to pass this test.

I figure out what I had left to do and planned out which books I needed to read by which dates. I knocked out three to four books a week during the winter break, but once the semester got back in (and I was teaching a sophomore level class that I had never taught before), my more immediate requirements got in the way and I found myself, a couple weeks before the exam, having to accept that I couldn’t possibly finish all of the books and instead I needed to figure out how best to familiarize myself with the few that I would not have time to actually read.

Sound familiar? If you’ve ever taken a Comps Exam it probably does. I’ve come to find out that most people don’t actually read every book on the list. They try their best, but you have a lot on your plate as a grad student and if you’re actually making sure to write a fair amount on the side, you may find yourself having to pick and choose which things you simply do not have time for.

But it turns out that Comps is all about doing the reading. Acquainting yourself with a wide range of texts in your genre. Once I took the test I was surprised at how easy it was. It was clear that the test itself was just a means to expose us to the books themselves. And I felt relieved, because it meant that I would pass even though I hadn’t read every single book, but I also felt sort of guilty, because the point of the whole thing was to read every book and I hadn’t done that.

The other day I was talking to a friend who is about to take comps next weekend and he mentioned that while he doesn’t think he’ll be completely done with the list in time for the test, he plans on finishing the few that he only read partway through as soon as he has time after the exam. I think that’s a smart move. After all, the Comps Exam is no different from anything else in a school environment. You get what you give. Passing the test doesn’t mean you gained what you were supposed to have from the experience.

I never did get back to my Comps list but I plan to, even the one that I didn’t finish reading because I hated it (sorry William Faulkner . . .) There are certain books it’s just good to have read, partly so you know what other people are talking about and partly because, as a writer, it’s good to step outside of your normal range of reading. Even the ones you don’t enjoy can teach you something (even if it’s simply techniques you’d like to avoid at all costs in your own writing). And in my experience, a large majority of the books are extremely enjoyable, anyway. So get reading! If you want to improve as a writer you’ve got to be willing to put all the necessary work in.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

On Submissions

Reflecting on a recent story acceptance I got from The Ampersand Review, I realized two very interesting things.

First, I realized something about rejections. This story is one that I just finished revising at the end of December and had only just started submitting it around when I already got the acceptance. I submitted it to seven places and got it accepted by one of them within a few weeks. It made me go back and reflect on the other acceptances I’ve gotten, and they’ve all been similar situations. Every story I’ve ever gotten accepted has been accepted quickly, after receiving no more than a few rejections before somebody accepts it. It occurs to me that, while I still firmly believe that rejections can be a result of many more factors than simply that the story isn’t publishable, it may be safe to say that if a story gets rejected by ten journals, it probably needs more revision.

I’ve heard of writers who use this as a rule. They submit a piece ten times, and if it gets rejected all ten, they stop submitting it and go back to work on it. But I was never too sure about that idea, since I know full well that a rejection might mean nothing more than that the editor didn’t even read more than the first sentence or two and was reading even that much just looking for a reason to reject. But since my record seems to suggest that maybe if a piece is actually ready, it will find a home fairly quickly, I’m re-evaluating my thoughts on this general rule.

I think I’m going to adopt this rule myself. If a story gets rejected in the first round of sim-subs, and I usually send out to around 10 places in one batch, I’ll go back and read through it again. Really closely look for what might be causing these editors to say no. It could be that the first sentence isn’t engaging enough, or something as simple as a missed typo early on which may be causing the editors to quickly lose faith in my professionalism. Or there may be more serious craft or plot problems that, for whatever reason, I didn’t notice the first time I decided it was ready.

The second thing I realized was that a lot of my fellow MFA students are simply not submitting. I had some conversations with a few different people about submissions recently, and it seems to be the case that many, maybe even most, of my peers in the program here at UAF rarely submit at all. This is so sad to me because you obviously can’t get accepted if you don’t submit and acceptances are an important part of encouraging you to keep at it. Over and over again I’m simply blown away by the excellent writing that my peers here are doing, and yet many of them have never even been published at all . . . because they don’t submit!

I really wish that MFA programs helped train people for the business side of writing. How to craft cover and query letters. How to approach agents. How to revise your stories not just to make them as good as possible for somebody who has already committed to reading them all the way through, but also to make your stories engage a reader (like an editor or agent!) early on who may not actually have the time to read every story they come across all the way through. And just as important as all those things is the simple act of submitting. Regularly.

But MFA programs don’t usually focus on these things and so it’s important for each writer, as an individual, to do it for him or herself. I think it’s a good idea to set goals for everything in writing, but even more so for submissions. Force yourself to submit to a certain number of places each month. Keep track of your rejections and don’t be ashamed of them, they’re an important part of being a writer. A fellow MFAer at UAF is collecting her submissions and counting toward the magic number 100, at which point she’s going to go out and treat herself for all the hard work she’s put in. I think that’s an awesome idea because after all rejections are just as much a part of being a writer as acceptances are. I say if you’re not getting rejected regularly that means you’re not submitting enough!