I recently started an MFA in writing for children and young adults. It’s expensive, and I knew if I was going to commit the time and money to it that I wanted to get the most out of it. And so I thought hard about how to do that.
The first thing I decided was that it didn’t make a lot of sense to go into the program doing the same old things I’ve always done with my writing. It seems like if that was super working for me, I’d have met all my publishing goals by now. But I haven’t, and so I wanted to challenge everything about my process to see what I learned.
Challenge #1: Write a different genre. I’ve only tried YA before so I thought I’d give middle grade a shot and see what I learned.
Challenge #2: I only work on one project at a time. So I started a second simultaneous project. And in the spirit of Challenge 1, since I only do contemporary, I decided to also try a YA historical. Um, fantasy. Just for good measure.
Challenge #3: Ditch the outline. Because I always outline.
Challenge #4: Skip beta readers. I use beta readers pretty exhaustively before my stuff goes to my editor, so I decided to still revise my work but send it straight to my advisor with no outside input.
Challenge #5: Forget about my audience. I always think of who my audience is. For me, I’ve learned that I can’t get anything into the hands of kids unless I get it through my agent first, and then past an editor. And so I’ve thought about what they might be looking for, how they want to hear things. So I resolved to quit thinking about the pub pros and think only about the story and what it was telling me I needed.
So the semester has finished and I have much to think about.
Did becoming my opposite author-self lead to a growth stunt or a growth spurt?
Challenge #1: Writing a different genre. The middle grade story was a fun experiment. It was cool to think about how the problems confronting a twelve-year-old are significantly different than those confronting the sixteen-year-old protagonists I usually craft. It forced me to think about character motivation and why kids do what they do.
The real eye-opener was the YA historical fantasy. Playing in a different era meant following a new set of social rules, and having to consider how every choice I made as author closed or opened paths in the rest of the story. I’m used to the rhythm of romantic comedies. It’s become almost second nature to me to know what each of my character’s words or actions signal. I know what it sets up for later, and I understand the consequences of everything. But that’s the thing: It really is second nature. I lost that luxury by writing a totally different genre. As a result, the story was far more thoughtfully constructed, and it became a delicious sort of brain exercise to chase down different imaginary trails before choosing the right one.
Challenge #2: Work on simultaneous projects. I already knew that I loved switching between genres. If I finished an adult romantic comedy, then I tackled a YA novel next. It makes my brain happy. But I felt this even more intensely as I worked on these two projects. It’s like alternating cardio with strength-training instead of doing stupid kickboxing aerobics all the time. And switching back and forth kept them both fresh and interesting to me.
Challenge #3: Ditch the outline. I started out as a discovery writer or “pantser”—someone who writes by the seat of their pants with no clear plan. And I loved it, but I learned for my own mental health that I had to outline if I had a prayer of hitting my publishing deadlines. To go back to my original state, to the discovery—it was magic. It was really fun to just show up to work and see what would happen, and it reinvigorated my creativity. I don’t think I could do it for my regular deadlines, but that renewal of creativity and rediscovering the fun of writing was possibly worth the price of admission.
Challenge #4: Skip beta readers. I did it. I revised and then let it appear, wart-riddled and everything, in front of my advisor. Who is Kind of a Big Deal. That allowed him to see a little bit more inside my process, to see where my ideas came from and what they turned into, and to figure out exactly where to step in a coach me. I don’t necessarily see this as something that I would do in my professional writing life, but it was great in terms of the school process. I still think when working toward publication that putting your polished work in front of beta readers is best.
Challenge #5: Forget about my audience. This is where I was least successful. I couldn’t quite silence the voice in my head that would say, “If it’s good enough, maybe I can sell it and THAT will help pay for school.” But I tried to shut that voice up. I tried not to think of what my agent would like, or what kind of submissions editors want to see. I even tried to ignore what a current twelve- or sixteen-year-old might find interesting. Instead, I focused on what I would have loved at twelve and sixteen, what I would have found interesting, not what adults think is interesting for kids. And to some extent, that allowed me to think less about literary conventions and just what’s purely cool. And once again, I felt that surge in creativity, that sense of looking forward to going back to work on a manuscript each new day.
I don’t know if I’m going to finish either of these stories. And I guess that’s Challenge #6: I’ve never written something just to write it, never churned out 100 pages only to walk away from it. So maybe it’s time to do that too, to go find a new story to tell, see what it teaches me, and then when I’ve experimented and had a few failures purely for the sake of learning, I can sit down to craft a winner again. But I suspect what I’ve learned more than anything is that it must be a story that satisfies my soul to write, whether it’s booger jokes or Antebellum New Orleans. As long as I care, as long as there’s joy in the work even when it’s not always fun in the day-to-day, I might catch lightning by the tail some day.
Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.