Sunday, September 27, 2009

Editorial Feedback

So one of the non-MFA writers that MFA/MFYou has published mentioned that he doesn’t feel he’s missed out on anything by not getting a formal creative writing education – he gets essentially the same (or one could argue more valuable) feedback that you get in workshop from editors when he submits his work. This is very true. Although not all editors give feedback on rejected submissions, it’s not uncommon for editors to give personal feedback on the submissions that came really close to getting accepted or even that they liked enough to bother spending the extra few minutes writing a real rejection and not just sending out the form response.

This past week I got a rejection that caused me to go back and revise a story – and the story, I feel, has greatly improved as a result. What happened was that the editor gave me a reason for the rejection that happened to be the exact same reason that another editor had given me a few months ago. The problem that these editors pointed to had to do with the amount of exposition that fell at the beginning of the story. The first time an editor told me this, I recognized that this was true of the story but I felt that it was alright – that it was still well written and engaging and I shouldn’t feel the need to change it just because the current standard is that we don’t like it when stories have a lot of exposition.

But when the second editor cited the exposition as the reason for rejection, I decided I would be wise to go back and revisit the story with that concern in mind. I opened up a new document and wrote a new beginning, working to address the problem these editors had with the story, but I kept the thought in the back of my mind that if I didn’t like the end result, I would chuck the revision and keep the story as it was. But I did like the end result and I think that the story is immensely stronger now.

This is similar to the experience MFAers sometimes have in workshop. You might cringe at some of the workshop feedback, but when several people agree that something is a problem you’ve got to be kind of arrogant to not seriously consider their concerns. The difference here is that I think in some ways the feedback you receive from editors should carry more weight. If more than one editor – having no knowledge of what other editors have said – agree that something isn’t working in your piece, you’d be wise to really think hard about whether they might be right.

I had another editorial feedback episode yesterday, this time for a story that has been accepted for publication (from a market that is both paying and international – woo-hoo!). The editor sent me some feedback and would like me to revise the story and get it back to her in a week. Much of her feedback was similar to the margin notes you receive in workshop. Not the major stuff that gets discussed out loud in class – no, if there had been major problems I doubt that the story would have been accepted at all. This is the sentence level stuff that gets marked on the individual copies of a piece: this sentence is a bit awkward, this bit of dialogue seems out of character, this is perhaps a bit of a cliché. That sort of thing. And it’s all (with the exception of one sentence that I plan to talk to the editor about – see if I can convince her why this is okay) stuff that I agree wholeheartedly about.

I feel like my workshop experiences were at least partially preparing me for the feedback I would later receive from editors, but I also think that you could skip the workshop environment altogether and, as long as you’re a mature enough writer (and human being) to be able to listen open-mindedly to criticism, you’ll be able to improve using the editorial feedback that will inevitably come your way. You may not always like it, and you certainly won’t always agree with it, but you should be happy to get it whenever you can. None of us can do this entirely on our own.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Average Reading Levels and Other Forgotten Things

I’m teaching Technical Writing this fall and I came across an interesting bit of information that I can’t help but apply to creative writing. The textbook I’m teaching out of says that it is common for businesses to put out writing at a sixth to eighth grade reading level. The book cites a study that says that while 28% of Americans graduate from college (a very low number to begin with), only about 31% of college graduates can actually read at what we would consider a college graduate level. Simply put, if you’re writing very complex, highly intellectual prose, you’re writing for a very small audience.

While this is more important from a technical writing perspective than from an artistic perspective – you may decide that you don’t want to dumb your art down just so that you can reach more people with it – it still, I think, is worth thinking about. Consider what a higher reading ability your average master’s or doctorate level creative writer has compared with the average, everyday American reading public. Small presses are sometimes willing to put out the highly artistic, intellectual stuff even though it has a low chance of making them any real money, but most of the bigger publishers aren’t even going to consider your work if it can only be marketed to people with English graduate level educations.

And this in my opinion is one of the most legitimate arguments against getting an MFA. The feedback you receive at a graduate level workshop comes from graduate level writers and readers, people with advanced educations, reading abilities, and a stronger than average willingness to work hard to figure out what a text is getting at. They applaud the innovative and unique, the experimental and peculiar, and they deplore things that are easy to follow, straightforward and traditional, plot driven or with a deeper meaning that most readers in the class are able to figure out. In essence, they don’t like the stuff that is actually going to be accessible to a wider audience.

That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with writing for a small audience of like minded individuals. But I would argue that there’s nothing wrong, either, with taking audience into consideration and actually writing at a level that non-writers and non-scholars will appreciate, too. I’m not saying you should write at a sixth to eighth grade reading level – unless, of course, you’re writing books for sixth to eighth graders. The average American who actually reads for pleasure, I’m guessing, has a higher reading ability than the average American period. But I don’t think the average reading American is at a graduate reading level, either. In my writing, I’m interested in writing stories that are well crafted and complex enough that those scholars will consider it passable – though maybe not exceptional, not perfect by any means – and I don’t want to alienate the larger reading public in the process. I think there can be a middle ground.

I believe that a lot of graduate students aim for that higher ground and end up limiting their audience. Yeah, the few people who read their stuff might consider them brilliant. But they will never have more than a few people willing to read their stuff. This, I suspect, is where a lot of the negative MFA sentiment comes from. I don’t even know how many submission guidelines I’ve read that specify that they are not interested in the writing getting pumped out of MFA programs. I think it’s true that MFA writing sometimes seems pretentious and it’s true that a lot of it is not actually enjoyable – you read it because it’s doing interesting things, not because it’s actually entertaining.

I also don’t think that getting that MFA automatically means you will become one of those writers. You can – and should! – pick and choose which of the feedback is actually going to bring your writing to the point you would like it to be, and this is true whether you’re in a graduate workshop or a writer’s group out in the real world. But there’s a lot to be said for studying the books that actually sell instead of only the books that are considered artistically interesting, and of getting feedback from other writers who are trying to write for a wider audience than from writers who value the strange and the difficult above all else.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Network

Some funny little coincidences have happened lately that remind me how small a world we writers live in. At a get-together for the new graduate students in Damien’s program a few days ago I chatted with a girl who told me about a poet friend of hers. She mentioned a few specific details that I very quickly connected with a poet we had published here at MFA/MFYou. I asked her what the name of this poet friend of hers is and sure enough, it’s one of our fabulous MFA/MFYou contributors.

But wait, there’s more:

Last night Damien was chatting on Facebook with a PhD fiction writer in his program. She told him that his profile picture is in an online photo album that a cousin of hers is in. That’s odd, Damien thought, because the only photo album she could possibly be talking about is one created by one of my old professors from my MFA program. Damien prodded her for more details and sure enough, her cousin studied creative writing at a college that my old professor used to teach at before he came to UAF.

Small world.

I noticed recently that a poetry professor at my old MFA program is Facebook friends with a nonfiction professor at Damien’s current program. A while ago I had a friend recommend a book to me and then another writer friend mentioned casually that he knows the guy that wrote it – they were on a panel discussion together at a conference some time ago. I was looking up agents the other day to find possible people to query about my novel and I stumbled across an agent page flashing an image of my UAF mentor’s most recent book

The thing is, the world of writing really is that small. When I was younger I used to fantasize about being part of an entourage of writers. You always hear about this big writer who is friends with that big writer; you always notice writers thanking each other in their acknowledgement pages.

Through my MFA program, and through Damien’s MA program, we’ve met numerous successful writers, some reasonably famous writers even, and many more that are on their way up. We’ve begun to become part of that very small world where you know people that could possibly introduce you to someone who could possibly publish your next book, or help you promote your current one, or even just give you invaluable feedback on your work. This networking idea seems overwhelming at times but it really is important. And it’s really not as difficult as you might think to break into that great big little network of writers.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Momentum Revisited

I’ve talked about momentum before and I’ll probably talk about it again but I’m going to talk about it today, too, because it is, in my opinion, the most important ingredient for success in writing – and most anything else you could ever do. After having spent the past couple of months focusing mostly on scholarly writing, moving, and finding a new job, this month I’ve been focusing on trying to get my momentum back up as a creative writer.

I liken my experience this week to the episode of The Simpsons when Homer decides he wants to be an inventor like Thomas Edison. Homer quits his job and clears his schedule and sets up an office for himself in the basement. He writes “Inventions” at the top of a notepad and then sits there tapping his pencil against the pad, waiting for the brilliant ideas to come flooding in. And of course, they don’t.

You can set aside a block of time, you can arrange an office for yourself or set up your computer just so, you can put your cat outside and send your husband or wife to the store, you can tell yourself “today I am going to write that story/poem/essay I’ve been wanting to write about bla bla bla,” and still, still, you find yourself sitting there in front of a blank computer screen, feeling despondent.

I know this seems in contradiction to what I always say about how it isn’t an acceptable excuse to say you don’t have time to write – the time is there you just have to decide to spend it writing. It’s true that I’m a big proponent for knocking out the excuses and just writing; I don’t believe you should call yourself a writer if you don’t write and write often. But I do admit that there’s more to it than just deciding that you’re going to spend the next hour writing. And that more, I believe, comes down to momentum.

I used to spend an average of about two hours a day writing, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less, and it never felt the way it feels right now when I sit down to log in my time – like I’m forcing it. But the thing is, I’ve lost my momentum and until I get that momentum back up I’m probably going to feel like Homer tapping his “Inventions” notepad and waiting for the ideas to come. But if I don’t stick with it, if I don’t keep sitting down to write everyday for at least an hour, I’ll never get the momentum back.

Already I can feel it getting easier. Two mornings ago I woke up with a break through about a story I was working on – third person! I need to change the perspective from first to third! – and I rushed downstairs to get cracking on it. Yesterday I suddenly had a flash about something I should add to my novel and even though my husband was home, The Simpsons was blasting from our living room TV, and it wasn’t time I had specifically set aside to write, I turned on my computer and excitedly worked the new idea into the novel.

I’ll be teaching this fall and the quarter begins in two weeks. I fully expect that as long as I keep sitting down to write everyday by the time school begins and my schedule gets busy again, my momentum will be going strong as a creative writer and I will be able to comfortably juggle both teaching and writing. It would be easy to give up, to tell myself “well, you just can’t force it” or “I’m just not inspired right now” and do something else instead, but I think it’s important to stick to it until you’ve trained your mind into lingering in that writer mode. Then, and only then, will I feel like a real “writer” again.