Posted in career, Uncategorized

Should You Get an MFA in Creative Writing?

I used to tell everyone not to get an MFA. My personal experience gave me a negative view of the whole academic field. But in the years since grad school, my attitude has softened. I learned skills in my MFA that I use now that I teach writing classes, and for that I’m very appreciative. The biggest mistake I made was choosing a program that wasn’t a good fit for me.

Now, when my students or other writers ask me about MFA programs, I give more targeted advice. You need to look at your life and your needs to figure out if an MFA program makes sense. Here are the five most important criteria to consider.

1. Why do you want an MFA?

This question may sound obvious, but it should not be overlooked. You shouldn’t get an MFA just because your friends are doing it or you are bored with your job (or, as McSweeney’s puts it, you need a snack).

An MFA in creative writing won’t automatically get your book published or get you a tenure-track teaching job. But it can give you time to write and provide feedback that can improve your writing. What’s said less often, MFA programs are finishing schools for the literary set. There are a lot of subtle rules about cover letters and proper reading etiquette. Knowing how to play the game can give you a leg up when submitting, querying or networking.

But please don’t get an MFA if you lack the discipline to write and think that getting an MFA will change that. I had too many classmates, some of them brilliant writers, who never wrote a word after graduation.

2. Can you get funding?

Full funding is rare for MFA programs. In 2016, only 7% of MFA graduates were fully funded, meaning the student paid nothing for the degree. Yet in many other fields, funding is much more common.

Fine arts degrees have a poor return on investment in terms of income after graduation. This means that you really want to reduce the price of getting your degree as much as possible. Look for programs that offer fellowships and other opportunities to reduce your tuition. Even partial funding can help reduce your final bill.

3. What are your other priorities?

Are you going to be working full-time while you’re in school? Do you have children or aging parents to take care of? Make sure you find programs that can accommodate your needs.

Many MFA programs offer multiple formats. A hi-res (high residential) program provides a traditional on-campus experience, which in some cases may offer more opportunities for teaching fellowships or networking. However, a low-res option, which will be primarily online, may be more flexible for juggling multiple priorities. Some low-res options provide more one-on-one mentoring, which may make up for fewer opportunities in other areas.

4. What programs provide the opportunities you need?

You may be considering a specific emphasis, like teaching or publishing. Make sure the programs you are applying to not only offer the emphasis you want, but provide opportunities for hands-on experience as well. You may learn a lot from a pedagogy class, but if you don’t have actual teaching experience, you’ll have a hard time finding a job.

5. What can you learn about the faculty?

When looking at programs, make sure you learn as much about the faculty as you can. Ideally, you want to look for professors who write in a similar genre and have work that excites you. However, it’s also true that not all good writers are good teachers. I like the writing of Joyce Carol Oates, but I’ve heard she hardly shows up to her classes. You want to investigate both the faculty’s writing, and also reviews of their teaching.

Getting an MFA has helped some writers make connections and gain experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten. But many more MFA graduates end up in debt for a degree they never use again, and there may be cheaper ways to learn the same material. By reading this blog post, you’ve already done more research than I did when applying to grad programs, so I trust that you can make the right choice for yourself.

Posted in publishing, Uncategorized

Should you pay a submission fee to literary journals?

When I started submitting short fiction to literary journals, over a decade ago, submission fees were rare, usually limited to big contest. Over the past few years, however, it has become nearly ubiquitous to pay money to have your short story considered for publication in a literary magazine.

It can be intimidating for new writers who finally feel ready to put their work out there, only to discover they have to pay money just to have their work looked at. Is it even worth it? Well, sometimes. You want to take a long look at the website of the publication you are considering submitting your work to and ask the following questions.

Is the fee only a few dollars?

Most submission fees are between $2 and $5 USD, however some charge over $20. You probably don’t want to pay more than a few dollars unless it is a special contest. You can usually find this information on the “Submit” page of the journal’s website.

Does this journal regularly publish unsolicited pieces?

The name for a story that you send to an open submission call is an “unsolicited manuscript.” This isn’t the only way that magazines and journals find stories to publish. They might also contact establish writers directly and ask them for pieces, and this is called a “solicited manuscript.” There are journals that put out open calls for submissions that actually rarely publish unsolicited manuscripts, instead relying on the stories they solicited directly.

You can often determine how often a journal publishes unsolicited manuscripts by having a look at who they have published in the past. Most literary journals publish short biographical statements of their writers. Are all the writers they published famous with books out, or do they publish a mix of established an emerging writers? Look to see if any of the biographical statements mention if this is their first published work, or if they only list a few literary journals in their publication history.

Has this journal been around for a while?

The internet has lowered the barrier for starting a new publication. While this is great in many ways, it also means sometimes people start a literary journals without thinking about how long they will be able to maintain the project. This results in a lot of online literary journals that only produce a couple issues before disappearing. Make sure that the journals you are submitting to have put out a few issues already and that they have a regular publication schedule.

Does this journal have a professional looking website?

This is related to our previous criteria. Online literary journals that put effort into their web design and branding are more invested in their continued existence. Plus, if you get published, you will feel more pride if you can direct your friend and family to a nice looking website to read your piece.

Is this journal transparent about where the fee is going?

A journal should always be up front about where the fee is going. Is it covering their printing costs or web servers? Are they paying their editors or contributors?

Does this journal pay its writers?

Most literary journals don’t pay writers, even many that charge a submission fee. If they do pay their writers, you have a chance to earn back what you paid in submission fees. Journals that pay their writers also tend to be more established and have a larger readership.

Does this journal nominate for any awards?

There are journals that don’t pay their writers, but still nominate for prestigious awards. If you don’t make any money, but have a chance to be nominated for the Best American Short Fiction, Best of the Net or the Pushcart Prize, it may be worth it.

Will this publication help your writing career?

If your goal is to publish a short story collection or literary novel, getting stories in reputable literary journals like Ploughshares or Black Warrior can get the attention of literary agents or look good in a query letter. For MFA graduates looking for professorships in creative writing, these sorts of publications can also impress a hiring committee.

But if your goal is to have fun sharing your stories or if you’re more interested in another genre of writing, like mystery or young adult novels, you might not need to spend money on submission fees to realize your dreams.

I also made a PDF checklist so you can always remember to consider these important questions when sending your stories into the world.

If you’re looking for more advice on getting your work ready for publication, follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks for joining me today. I look forward to writing with you again!

Posted in book reviews, Uncategorized

5 Things I Learned from “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” by George Saunders

In George Saunders’s latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, we don’t see the zany satire he’s known for. Instead we see a different side of Saunders, his teacher side.

The book is based on a course he teaches at the University of Syracuse about the Russian short story. He explores seven stories by nineteenth-century masters and looks for lessons that these stories still have for writers today. Here are five that I found valuable:

1. Wow Your Reader Once Sentence at a Time

Bill Buford, a former fiction editor of the New Yorker, once said that what he liked about a story was “I read a line. And I like it…enough to read the next.”

What keeps a reader reading? Tender vulnerability, a surprising turn of phrase, a description that changes the way we view an ordinary object, a bit of dialogue that makes us feel tethered to the characters.

Here was a line that wowed me from the first story in the book, “In the Cart” by Anton Chekhov: “‘And you can’t understand,’ she thought, ‘why God gives good looks, friendliness, charming, melancholy eyes to weak, unhappy, useless people––why are they so attractive.'”

Even though all the words in the sentence are simple, it expresses something complex about this character’s inner life and the life of the character she’s thinking about.

2. A Story Can’t Stay Static

One of the fundamental laws of fiction is “always be escalating.”

Early in his writing career Saunders once got a rejection that read, “It’s fast and funny and wild…but we aren’t sure it’s a story.”

Writing a satisfying story is a balancing act. We writers must set the reader’s expectations and honor them, but do it in a way that’s surprising. An ending that seems to come out of nowhere might cause the reader to throw the book out of the nearest window, but nobody likes a predictable plot either.

One way that several of these Russian writers manage this balance is by employing patterns and variations.

Chekhov’s short story “The Darling” tells of a woman named Olenka and the four men she’s loved in her life. With each new love, she becomes totally consumed by the object of her love, taking his opinions and views as her own. But each time the pattern repeats, something about the situation has changed. Each man is different, and Olenka is aging herself. By the end of the story, we feel like we know her so well because we’ve seen how the same personality trait manifests in different circumstances.

3. Revising is Listening

I often have my students read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” in the first class of a term. It’s a great way to free students from the pressure they feel to write perfectly from the start.

George Saunders says that in his years as a writing teacher, only two things separate his students who go on to publish from those who don’t. The first is structure, which I talked about in the previous section. The other is a willingness to revise.

We read our work the same way a reader might, line by line. And with each line, we have to ask ourselves, is this line working as well as it should? What can we do to improve it?

It can be a slow process.

Robert Frost once came to a college to do a reading. At that reading, a student stood up to ask a complex technical question about the sonnet form. Frost responded: “Young man, don’t worry: WORK!”

A lot of aspiring writers believe that there is a secret they can unlock to make writing fast and easy. If you have the secret, please let me know! So far in my writing career, the only thing I’ve found that works is parking my butt in the chair and telling myself I have to work.

A story is a conversation between a writer and a reader. As we go through our sentences line by line, we find opportunities where we can communicate better. This might be by speaking more directly, honestly or vividly.

The Russian short stories in this book did not manifest themselves exactly as how they were published. The writers crafted these stories by looking at what was already working well and enhancing it.

One small detail that got my attention in the Tolstoy story “Master and Man” was a shirt drying on a line that the main characters pass several times as they get lost in a deadly snow storm. Each time the shirt is being affected differently by the raging wind, until at last it has blown away entirely. I doubt Tolstoy sat down to write “Master and Man” with this drying shirt in mind, but when he realized how effective this detail could be at foreshadowing, he ran with it.

4. The Door To the Truth Might Be Through Strangeness

This is my favorite chapter title in the book, and not just because I teach a class called Writing the Strange.

What we call “realism” in fiction isn’t all that real. Events are heightened and condensed. There is no randomness. Everything is ordered and is understandable, for the reader if not for the characters. But how often does real life feel ordered and understandable?

This is why strange stories like “The Nose” by Gogol can still capture something about what it means to be human. This story is about a proud Russian bureaucrat who discovers that his nose has escaped from his face and surpassed him by obtaining the rank of State Councillor. With such an absurd premise, the story is able to satirize social class in a unique way.

5. Good Stories Resist A Single Meaning

When I was younger, I wanted to save the world with my writing. I thought that I could use fiction to correct people’s wrong opinions about social issues.

But Chekhov once said, “Art doesn’t have to solve problems. It only has to formulate them correctly.”

In other words, to express a problem fully, with all its nuances, not denying a part of it because it is inconvenient or contradictory.

In the story “Alyosha the Pot,” Tolstoy intended the main character to embody radical Christian humility. The story is about a simple peasant named Alyosha, who goes to the city to become a servant for a harsh but wealthy family. When he falls in love with the cook of the household, he realizes for the first time that life might have other things to offer. But both the masters and his family disapprove of the match, and he cancels the engagement. As the story continues, the reader can’t help but question if Alyosha’s meekness is truly a virtue.

Even though Tolstoy had strong moral beliefs about Christian ethics, in his fiction, he left a lot up the reader to decide. The world and the general public’s ideas about right and wrong have changed a lot in the hundred years since the story was written. If this story were more pedantic, if it told us there was only one ethical way to life, it wouldn’t have stood the test of time.

Conclusion

Let me leave you with one final quote from George Saunders: [when reading a good story] “we begin living it; the words disappear and we find ourselves thinking not about word choice but about the decisions the characters are making and decisions we have made, or might have to make someday, in our actual lives. That’s the kind of story I want to write, the kind that stops being writing and starts being life.”

I think that is what every writer is striving for. If, like me, you are struggling to figure it out, follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter for more posts like this where we learn something together.

Posted in Uncategorized, writing habits, writing prompts

4 Ways To Find Story Ideas

How do we get story ideas? We all want an idea so great that we can’t put down the pen. But all writers sometimes feel like the muse has left them. If you’re like a lot of my fiction students, you might love words and language and get pleasure from putting together sentences, but struggle to find a story to structure your writing. Sometimes you might feel like you have to wait around for the angel of inspiration to bless you, but it turns out, generating new story ideas is a skill like any other. It can be honed and practiced.

This blog post is not going to be a list of prompts. There are endless web pages containing lists of prompts. These don’t always solve the problem of inspiration. It’s not uncommon to get a prompt, and still have no idea what to do with it.

Instead, I’m going to be talking about ways you can mine your own experiences and interest for story ideas. Unlike prompts, which might feel random or unrelated to you, these methods will generate story ideas for you that are already connected to powerful memories and the things you feel most passionate about.

Have A Writing Practice

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of having a writing practice. However, I don’t think everybody has to write every day. We all have different lives and schedules and what’s important is finding something that works for you.

The reason why this helps generate story ideas is the practice of writing will change how you see the world. When I was a teenager, I used to write poetry, and because I was in the habit of writing poetry, I would see things that would give me ideas for poems. I don’t write poems anymore, and I never get ideas for poems.

If you don’t know what to write about, you can start keeping a regular journal. This could be your day-to-day activities, your observations or your dreams. Eventually, you’ll start to notice what you like to write about, what’s interesting, and what could be expanded.

Write One True Sentence

This is how Ernest Hemingway always broke his writer’s block. For him, “one true sentence” is a simple declarative sentence, not something overly flowery or philosophical. His first lines usually have concrete physical details and introduce both a setting and a character. Here are some examples:

  • It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. — “A Clean, Well-lighted Place”
  • It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened. — “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
  • He came into the room to shut the windows while we were still in bed and I saw he looked ill. — “A Day’s Wait”

What “true” sentences can you think of? You might want to imagine a person who caught your eyes somewhere, or an event from your real life. You can still feel free to use this as a jumping off point if you write fiction.

Listen to Music

Appreciating another form of art can help us reach creative breakthroughs. I often use paintings, photographs and music during writing exercises in my classes. Of course, you can get inspiration from dance, sculpture, film or any work of art that you’re passionate about.

When I use music prompts in class, or to inspire my own writing, I tend to favor songs that have cryptic lyrics. Some examples that I’ve used are “Birthday” by the Sugarcubes, “O Children” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan. I feel like this inspires nonlinear thinking as it is easy to free-associate from the images without pinning you to a single narrative. Or you could ignore the lyrics altogether and focus on the emotions that the music produces for you.

Of course, if you have a favorite narrative song, you can also try to expand the story. Maybe there is a minor character in the song that you’ve always wondered about, or you expect the lovers in the song are bound to break up.

Take Inspiration from Books

Part of being a writer is being part of the literary tradition. Writers have been taking inspiration from their fellow writers for thousands of years. Even Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was based on an Italian poem, which in turn was inspired by the Roman writer Ovid’s book Metamorphoses.

One exercise that I like to do with my students is to use opening lines from famous novels to begin our own stories. A good opening sentence can evoke endless possibilities. This works best if you use a sentence that’s unfamiliar to you, which is why I didn’t provide the titles which might introduce bias. Here is the list I use in class:

  • “All children, except one, grow up.”
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.”
  • “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
  • “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
  • “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
  • “A screaming comes across the sky.”
  • “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”
  • “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.”
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

There are many other ways to find inspiration from your favorite books and stories. There are published novels about the Pride and Prejudice characters fighting zombies and Sherlock Holmes during World War II. Being inspired by your favorite books isn’t just for online fan fiction, though you’re basing something directly on an existing work, make sure it’s in the public domain.

So you might want to give it a try. What happens when you put your favorite characters into a new situation or exotic setting? What would Romeo and Juliet’s marriage have been like if they didn’t die? What if Odysseus was an Iraq War veteran? All great books from the past can be updated a multitude of ways.

Are you looking for more writing inspiration? Follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.

Posted in setting, the novel, Uncategorized, writing prompts

How to Write A Setting With Personality

“The setting was like another character.” Have you ever heard someone describe a story this way? What is it that makes some settings feel alive, as if they were a person and not just a landscape? It takes more than just writing vivid description. Today, I’m sharing three ways to give your settings personality.

Setting is Responsive

My favorite instruction on writing setting comes from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. In her essay, “Place” Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Caroline, shares what makes setting come alive for her.

I cannot abide a story told to me by a numb, empty voice that never responds to anything that’s happening, that doesn’t express some feeling in response to what it sees. Place is not just what your feet are crossing to get to somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page–articulates with deliberate purpose. If you keep giving me these eyes that note all the details–if you keep telling me the lawn is manicured but you don’t tell me that it makes your character both deeply happy and slightly anxious–then I’m a bit frustrated with you. I want a story that’ll pull me in. I want a story that makes me drunk. I want a story that feeds me glory. And most of all, I want a story that I can trust. I want a story that is happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who’s telling me the story. Place is emotion.

Dorothy Allison, “Place”

In other words, in order for a place to feel like a character, the other characters should display an interactive relationship with it.

Allison goes on to say, “Place is where the ‘I’ goes. Place is what that ‘I’ looks at, what it doesn’t look at. Is it happy? Is it sad? Is it afraid? Is it curious?”

You have to know your main character’s personality well. This is especially important if you have a first-person narrator, since everything is being filtered through that character’s opinions.

Writing Prompt

In Allison’s essay, she makes a list of single lines of description that summarize her feelings toward various cities she’s visited. They are as follows:

  • Central Florida is despair.
  • New York City is sex.
  • California is smug.
  • Boston has never gotten over Henry James.
  • Seattle and Portland lie about their weather.
  • Iowa City is one hotel room and a chlorine stink away from the suburbs of hell.

Using Dorothy Allison’s sentences as a model, write single sentence descriptions that sum up the feelings you have about each of the cities and neighborhood where you have lived.

These lines make great opening sentences for stories or essays. Vladimir Nabokov began one of his short stories, “Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull.”

Setting is Personified

So far we’ve talked about how characters react to settings, but sometimes settings have an agency of their own. In the following passage, Jeanette Winterson introduces the setting in the first chapter of her novel The Daylight Gate.

The Forest of Pendle used to be a hunting ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter—alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt. […]

There is still a tradition, or a superstition, that a girl-child born in Pendle Forest should be twice baptized; once in church and once in a black pool at the foot of the hill. The hill will know her then. She will be its trophy and its sacrifice. She must make her peace with her birthright, whatever that means.

Jeanette Winterson, The Daylight Gate

Notice how she describes the hill like a creature, wearing a coat cropped like an animal pelt. Then as we go on, the hill begins to act, not just look, like a living creature. It knows the girl, as much as she knows it.

When nonliving things are described as if they had the qualities of something alive, this is called personification.

In this particular novel, we might suspect that there is something supernatural or uncanny about this setting that is giving it its agency. But even if your setting’s personification is a mere metaphor, it can still be effective in making it more evocative to the reader.

Writing Prompt

Your setting is alive. Write a scene where the setting has a message that it wants to communicate to a human character. How does it get its message across? Also think about your human character’s emotional response to the situation.

Setting is Defamiliarized

There’s an old saying that it’s the job of a writer to make the ordinary feel strange and new. This is called defamiliarization. The passage below describes a place that many of you should be familiar with, but does it feel comfortable and ordinary?

If there is a river within a thousand miles of Riverside Drive, I saw no signs of it. It’s like every place else out there: endless scorched boulevards lined with one-story stores, shops, bowling alleys, skating rinks, taco drive-ins, all of them shaped not like rectangles but like trapezoids, from the way the roofs slant up from the back and the plateglass fronts slant out as if they’re going to pitch forwards on the sidewalk and throw up.

Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

Here we have the suburban sprawl typical of southern California, but the description makes it feel anything but typical. Everything is slanted and irregularly shaped. The buildings are ready to vomit.

It is described in a way that makes the readers feel like they’re dizzy themselves. This isn’t just because of the word choice; the long run-on sentence is used intentionally to make the reader feel overwhelmed.

Whether or not the reader feels comfortable with your setting has nothing to with whether they know the place in real life. It’s all up to your words and sentence structure.

Writing Prompt

Write a scene where an alien visits a setting that is familiar to people living in the West in the 21st Century. It might be a supermarket, a highway, or a school. How does this setting feel outlandish, strange or unfamiliar to your character? What words and sentence structures capture this feeling?

The character doesn’t literally have to be a space alien. They could be an escaped circus animal, time traveler or anyone else you can imagine.

Wrapping Up

Now that we’ve learned about ways to give our setting personality, it’s time to think about how you might want to apply this information to your work in progress. You might want to double-check descriptions you’ve already written in your novel or memoir. Is it doing at least one of the following?

  • Showing something about your main character’s personality and how they relate to the world around them.
  • Creating a sense that the landscape is alive through its interactions with the human characters.
  • Disorienting readers with surprising word choices and sentence structures, giving them a sense of newness.

If it’s a “no” to all of the above, it may be that your setting is, pardon the pun, fading into the background. Revising with what you know now will make your setting an active character in its own right.

Need more advice on making your writing come alive? Follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.