Should you get an MFA?

I started an MFA program in January, specifically one geared at writing for children and young adults. (You can check out the program here). And it wasn’t an easy decision to make. I’ve been wanting to go back to school to get my masters forever, but I always figured it would be something in education. I’d toyed with the idea of doing an MFA (master of fine arts) instead but always brushed the idea aside. I guess I had this idea that the program would be full of pretentious teachers and faculty who would sneer at genre fiction and try to transmogrify my work into something high brow, literary, and dreadfully boring.

I like high brow literary books, actually. But I dislike dreadfully boring ones. And so I didn’t seriously entertain the idea of an MFA program. Besides, you absolutely do NOT need any degree at all to be a successful writer. There are scads of national bestsellers who never took a college writing class and do just fine drawing an audience, and even more importantly (to me), construct great stories. If you’re willing to read widely and practice hard by writing hundreds of thousands of words no one may ever see, then you can absolutely become a self-taught master of the craft over time with effort and some natural talent.

And yet here I am. This post is for anyone who is wondering if an MFA is for them. Because just two months into this program, I can tell you it’s definitely for me.

I’ve been writing for eight years now. I have seven published novels to my name. They are well-reviewed and sell well. I’m proud of these books, but they’re mostly for adults, fun, lighthearted romances that are perfect for Friday nights or reading by the pool. I like writing them, and I’ll keep doing it. But a few years into writing, I found myself restless to try something different. And so I started a young adult novel.

It was a contemporary story about a girl who is trying to escape her vindictive great aunt and her hoarding house by getting into design school in New York. It’s not something my publisher would be interested in, and so I went looking for an agent and landed a great one. That book didn’t sell. Neither did the next book, although it got close at a few national publishers.

I was left with the feeling that there was some piece missing in my writing and I couldn’t see it. And the thing is, although I know excellent writers who are generous in critiquing my work, none of them could put their finger on it either. But I could sense that I was missing something. Worse, other story ideas were coming to me that I didn’t dare tackle because I knew I didn’t have the chops.

That’s a sad feeling, not being able to tell a story you want to tell.

None of that would have led to an MFA though. It would have led to more conferences and retreats, which are also an excellent route to improving and growing. But a friend who graduated from my current program brought it up out of the blue one day. “You need to go get your MFA.” Wait, what? No, thanks. But she didn’t let up. And suddenly, two hours later, I was telling my husband I thought I should apply, and he was like, “DO IT.”

There are drawbacks to an MFA. It’s expensive. It’s time consuming. My low-residency model requires me to travel literally across the country twice a year for ten days. I could conceivably find the right combination of conferences, online classes, and critique partners to progress on my own. Also, I already have some of the things other people who enter these programs want: a major agent and some publishing contracts. So why do I need an MFA?

I guess it’s for the same reason that we have New York Times bestsellers in the program—as students. Not teachers. It’s about getting better, and this being the only way to truly grow any further. I’d gotten as good as I was going to get on my own.

Above all, this program offers me the chance to work with a brilliant teacher one-on-one for six months at a time, and have that teacher thoughtfully consider my work, show me my weaknesses, and challenge me to strengthen them.

Also, I have to read constantly now, so I can lie around on the sofa in the middle of the afternoon with my nose in a book and be like, “I’m working.” And I mostly get to pick what I want to read! Hard life.

The advisor relationship is the number one reason for me to do this program, but there are other benefits I’m discovering: first, an MFA is considered a terminal degree for teaching at the university level. That means it qualifies me to teach college, and I don’t need to get a PhD. Next, an incredible camaraderie develops between you and the other students in the program. Even across four semesters, there are only about 100 students enrolled at a time. That’s true of most programs. Some may even be smaller. It gives you an opportunity to get to know people who are as passionate about writing as you are. That also means there are inevitable networking opportunities that have the potential to blossom in unexpected ways.

MFA programs aren’t for everyone. And they’re definitely only for deeply committed writers, although that doesn’t have to mean published writers. My program is a range of writers from those who don’t have agents yet all the way up to those bestsellers.

What tells me that I’ve made the right choice more than anything else is that I’ve been happy to sacrifice luxuries and even small comforts to pay for school, and I haven’t begrudged that once. But even more than that, it’s the sheer joy I feel in learning and progressing every single day as I do my work.

Every. Single. Day.

It’s not an easy decision, or one that anyone can take lightly. But for the right person, it’s . . . well, it’s nirvana.

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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.

Be The Exception

Last week, the gym was slow again. Though my fitness center attendance has been sporadic at best over the last few months, I have had a membership long enough to know that the three day weekend in the middle of January is often when the New Year’s Resolutioners all but fizzle out. Then, the people who are there at 5:00 am M-F can go back to their routine.

A mere 22 days into the 365 that everyone promised was going to be their best year ever, how are your writing goals coming? Did you decide that trying was too hard, that you got caught up in the January enthusiasm and made a commitment that you really didn’t mean to? Maybe snow days, sick kids (or self), cold weather or winter blues have led you to believe that one more week of doing things as you’ve always done won’t really make that much difference, that you were pretty productive last year, and it turned out alright.

I’m convinced that the greatest plague of our society is apathy. Apathy for what we can be, for what we can achieve, for the places we can go. We celebrate the accomplishments of graduates and start-ups and people who finish something hard, but in the back of our minds, we admit that they will probably not do what they wanted. It’s hard, after all, and hard is hard. It’s easy to binge-watch Netflix. It’s easy to get caught in the habit of busyness at the cost of productivity. It’s easy to put things off because we don’t know how to make it perfect, and if it isn’t perfect, well, then people will know that we aren’t perfect and man, that would be EMBARRASSING.

So instead of just writing the book, we go back and go back. Instead of sending our work off for critique, we revise and revise and revise, not knowing whether we are making it better or worse, but that’s okay because at least we aren’t embarrassed about what we don’t know. We keep studying plot points and character development and ways to convey setting and the just right emotional cues and and and

We tell ourselves it’s too hard, that we don’t have a right to be exceptional, that the kinds of things that happen to other people could never happen to us. After all, we were born in (insert stereotypical location here) and people from (location) don’t ever (insert goal, dream, ambition).

Except.

There was that one who…
Everyone remembers when…
Of course, we can’t forget…

Our books, our creative work, our passion sits in us, fermenting because of prolonged preservation. And now something DOES start to stink and now we really are embarrassed so we toss it, never knowing if it was good or bad or anything and we are left with nothing but nodding and smiling and saying we are still “working on it.”

And when December 31st rolls around again, we make a resolution that next year will be our year, that we will really write that book, that we will really get our agent, that we will really hit publish.

Yes, there are people at the gym who are ridiculously healthy. Yes, there are people who have muscle definition that I didn’t even know was possible. Yes, it can be frustrating to be the person trudging along on a treadmill at something that is a hybrid between walking and jogging when the numbers next to you indicate six or seven or eight miles per hour.

Yes, there are people who have had incredible publishing luck. Yes, there are people who release best seller after best seller after best seller, who seem to make meager words on a page emerge like actual gold. Yes, there are people who release two, three, four books a year and it takes you months and months and months just to write one.

But here’s what I know. I’ve never met an “EXCEPT” who didn’t work. Hard. I’ve never met a success that simply manifested itself before me. I’ve never had a victory that wasn’t super balanced with defeat, discouragement and disappointment.

And when that victory was finally achieved, there was never a time when I said I wished it had come some other way.

Find the writing goals you made for this year. Read them OUT LOUD to yourself. Imagine what it will look like, feel like, when you achieve that. Then get to work.

Every day.

EVERY. DAY.

Because there is no reason you can’t be the most exceptional person in your own life.

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member.

Humor in Bad Situations

We are excited to welcome our newest contributor, Mikey Brooks!

Most people can look back on a bad experience and find humor in it. Like when I was in grade school and my shorts fell down in gym class exposing my nether-regions to half the sixth graders (girls included). At the time I was mortified, now I look back on it and laugh. The same thing goes with my personal path to publishing. When I was 21, I finished my first novel. I was so proud of my achievement and I knew that this book was going to be the next bestseller. I would soon buy a private island and retire at age 22 and do nothing more with my life except sip exotic smoothies on a beach somewhere—I couldn’t have been more wrong. Let me tell you why.

 
Back then I didn’t know the first thing about how to get a publisher or even what an agent was. Self-publishing wasn’t really around, except in the way of vanity presses which cost way too much for way too little. So I did what I thought was the right thing: I went to the library, got the Publisher’s Market book, and wrote down every address to every publishing house in the United States, then I took it home and sent my freshly printed manuscripts to every publishing house in the United States, regardless if they accepted unsolicited manuscripts or not (I didn’t know what that meant so I just played ignorant). Back then we didn’t have email submission so I spent a small fortune mailing those suckers out, but I knew it would all be worth it the moment they offered me my advanced royalty check. I sat back and waited for the offers to come in. 
Months passed and I continued to wait. Suddenly I was getting all these rejections in the mail and my dream of that private island began to fade. The real slap in the face came when I received a rejection from Harlequin saying, “nice book, but where’s all the sex?” I felt like I was back in grade school again—exposed and embarrassed. This was a children’s book and they wanted sex in it? I knew at that moment I didn’t know the first thing about writing, publishing, or anything for that matter. For me, my dreams of becoming an author were over. Poof! Goodbye, private island.
Of course now I laugh at how ridiculous it was for me to even send a publisher known for sexy books my middle-grade novel and expect anything but a rejection. I look back and see the humor in the situation and you know what? It helps. The one thing that every writer I have met, myself included, deals with is depression. We put so much of ourselves into our writing that when we get rejected it is a mortal blow to our souls. Darkness creeps in and soon we find ourselves in a rut filled with overeating on chocolate and wearing all black. 
The best medicine for rejection, disappointment, and depression is laughter. That’s no joke! Way too often authors get bogged down by the bad things that happen on their author journey. Rejections, bad reviews, harsh edits, and even more rejections—the list for bad things can go on and on. Try not to take those bad moments too seriously. Take a step back and try to find the humor in them. By finding something to laugh at, you will help move yourself both mentally and physically toward a brighter future. Just remember that things take time, especially when it comes to your author journey. After my crashing blow by Harlequin (I hope you did laugh at the stupidity of my story), it took me a good seven years before I even started writing another book again. Why? Because I refused to find the humor in the situation. It wasn’t until I really laughed out loud about it that I could move forward again. So take my advice and move at your own pace, dream wild dreams, but most of all—find humor in every bad situation.

____________________________

Mikey Brooks is a small child masquerading as an adult. On occasion you’ll catch him dancing the funky chicken, singing like a banshee, and pretending to have never grown up. He is an award winning author and illustrator. He has published five middle-grade books including the fantasy adventure series The Dream Keeper Chronicles. Some of his picture books include the best-selling ABC Adventures: Magical Creatures and Bean’s Dragons, which will be featured in an independent film releasing at the Sundance Film Festival. He has a BS degree in English from Utah State University and works full-time as a freelance cover designer and formatter. His art can be seen in many forms from picture books to full room murals. He loves to daydream with his four kiddos and explore the worlds that only the imagination of children can create. You can find more about him & his books at: www.insidemikeysworld.com

A Writer’s Bad Day

Hey, Thinkers! Is that what we call our blog readers? Thinkers Through Their Fingers? How ’bout I just call you Writers?

I mean, that’s what we are, right? What we do.

Tangent: Do you ever feel like everything is falling apart? As though you can’t do anything right? I had one of those weeks this week. It just felt as though I was forgetting everything left and right, and I had no one who really understood what I was going through. Between writing, family, kids, church, and hormones, I was a walking mess.

I’m not writing this to complain, but to be honest. Because I know–I know— that every single one of you has felt this. A bad day, week, month, year, (decade?) whatever. It happens to all of us. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the course of my short life, it’s that we are far stronger than we think we are.

It’s not over until you say it is. And as long as you keep going, your luck will keep changing. For better or for worse. We have to accept that. Things will not stay the way they are forever. They will not always be frustrating, or happy, or insane, or blissful. The state in which you find yourself is temporary. Do you hear me?

TEMPORARY.

Cherish the good times, and wade through the bad. They won’t last forever, I promise.

We write because we love it, don’t we? Because it fills a need. All of us feel that itch, that urge, to sit down with music, or silence, and the clicking of keyboards or the scratching of pens, to write. To outline, to edit, to go through three emails of CP notes and figure out which ones you agree with.

It’s hard to make time to write. It’s hard to get our family/spouse/children/siblings to understand how much of a need this is. It’s not just a hobby, though we sometimes have to treat it that way. Sometimes, we have to set it aside for other, usually more important, priorities. And that’s okay, we can do that. But we will always come back. Because that blank page is always calling.

I think Jo Rowling said it best. When her youngest child asked, ‘Mummy, if you had to choose between us and writing, what would you choose?’

Her response? ‘Well I would choose you but I would be very, very grumpy.’

We know how you feel, Jo. *fist bump*

Writing is more to us than just putting words on a page. It’s a sort of therapy for many writers. A release, a break from the trials of our everyday lives. After a hard day, when my children have been driving me crazy and I feel like I haven’t done anything right, I know I can return to that blank page. Because there, I am in control. My words might be beautiful, they might be terrible, but they are mine.

And I love them.

_____________________________

A Gryffindor, Mormon, and Wandmaker, Darci Cole is an author of YA and MG scifi/fantasy, the YA usually with a romantic twist. She’s edited a number of manuscripts for clients and also served as an editorial intern for Entangled Publishing during the summer of 2013.

The Life of a Drafting Writer

AKA the life of an author upchucking onto paper and hoping to whip all that…er…lovely mess into something someone somewhere will want to read….someday.

That paints a pretty picture, now doesn’t it?




Sometimes writing a first draft is like running through a field of posies while your hair blows in the lavendar-scented breeze and puppies and kittens run and frolic along side you.

You’re creating new characters. And you adore them! You’re building a whole world that is new and shiny and perfect and fantastic. You can write anything you want. Anything can happen! You don’t have to think about cleaning up any scenes or polishing up sentences or making anything make sense! (Ok. You might pay for that last one a bit later.)

Other times writing a first draft is like running through a field full of pricker bushes and thorns. With hot coals. And beside you is that mean girl from 6th grade who made fun of your bangs and how you wrote your A’s (really? who makes fun of someone’s A’s?).

Yeah. Not super fun.

Oy! You can’t find the right words. You aren’t sure what happens next. Your characters are all flat. There’s not enough tension. You can’t see anyway you’ll ever be able to make any of it better.

But, you know, what? So what? Writing a first draft is hard. You’re going to have to suck it up and deal with it.

Here are six tips to help:

#1: Get organized. 

Take some time to do a bit of prewriting. Outline, free write, come up with your seven points, write up a beat sheet ala Save the Cat or choose a different exercise to help you wrap your head around your story. If you have some idea of where you’re going and what’s happening next it’ll be easier to write everyday.

#2: Set a daily goal. 

Have a goal each day of how many words or how long you’re going to write that day. Sometimes I shoot for 1000 words and sometimes I’m happy with getting 15 minutes in. I

#3: Don’t slow down to research.

Don’t stop writing to research weird trees (Have you seen those Rainbow Eucalyptus?)  Don’t research how a steam engine works and get distracted by steampunk gadgets (Um…but there are some really cool steampunk machines out there….) And don’t let yourself wander through the internet checking out victorian slang. (Although, that’s fun, too. But, crikey, knock that off!)

If you don’t know something or can’t find the write word or name, type NEED COOL NAME or INSERT SOMETHING FUNNY or CHECK WHEN TOILET PLUNGERS WERE INVENTED (I actually do need to look that one up someday….) instead of wasting precious writing time. It’s too easy to get distracted. (Can you tell that I speak from experience?)

One of my critique partners, Tasha Seegmiller, is a pro at this. I love coming across lines in her manuscript like, “Add romantic scene here that gives all the feels.”

Sometimes you don’t know what to write, but don’t let that slow you down!

#4: Give yourself a deadline.

How fast can you write your first draft? In a month? Or two months? Maybe by the end of winter? Pick a deadline and stick with it.

#5: Don’t worry about sharing it with others. 

Your first draft stinks! Yeah, it’s supposed to. It’s a draft. And a draft is not a final product. You’re going to rewrite it and improve it and shine it up and make this story absolutely fantastic. BUT if you share your draft too soon you risk losing confidence in your work. Someone may make you second guess your work. They might give you advice that makes you want to start over. NO! Don’t do it! Which leads into tip number six rather well…

#6: Just write the stinking, rotten story! 

It’s tempting to writing the beginning over and over again. I know. I’ve been there. Or maybe you’re stuck and you don’t know what to write next. Maybe you’re avoiding your laptop like the plague.

I once heard Richard Peck say, “When I had writer’s block I used to go for a walk. But I found I never came back.”

You’ve got to keep going! You can’t know what the shape of your story will be until you actually write it. ALL of it. Not just the beginning that’s easier to write over and over. Not just a couple of fun scenes that are fun to improve over and over. No, you’ve got to get the whole thing out.

And sure, it’s way easier to stalk people on Facebook or shop for another pair of Converse or make a batch of those Fluffernutter Chocolate Gobs (Yeah, those are pretty tasty.) 


But don’t do it! Find a way to get focused, motivated or befriend someone who is good at things at knots, let them practice on you and get that first draft out of you. 

And just so you know….this post was basically me talking to myself. I’ve been struggling to write the first draft of my current WIP for more than a year. Maybe some of these tips will help me finally sit down and finish it.

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Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist. 

3 Ways to Stay Motivated During Long-Term Projects

This week I finally finished another round of revisions on my novel. Wait, let me say that another way. After three months, I finally finished another round of edits, as well as the three-month round before that, and the three-month round before that, and the year of rewrites before that, and the year and a half of rewrites before that, on top of the five months of writing the initial draft. Sound familiar? If you’re a novelist, I’m sure it does. Writers are nothing if not marathon-ers. It’s the nature of the craft.

 But it sure as hell isn’t easy.

I’ve given up a thousand and one times over the four years I’ve been shaping this novel, and felt absolutely sure I’d never finish it a thousand and two times. It’s hard to stay focused on the end goal when it’s just so far away, and there’s so much work to do between here and there. There’s a reason most people who starting writing a novel don’t finish. When the demons of self-doubt are raging and the progress is slow, how does a writer summon up the courage to keep going? Here are some ideas:

Research. And I’m not just talking to historical writers here. For every novel, there is a theme, a career path, a relationship, a hobby, an era, a setting–something–that got you interested in writing the book in the first place. We all do some amount of research to properly portray those subjects at the beginning of the project, but usually research tapers off the further in we get. The thing is, new information breeds new ideas, and new ideas breed excitement. When you start to feel complacent in your story world, discover something new about it! Get excited about it again!

Stay Balanced. Writers are an obsessive bunch, especially when it comes to our work. Sure, we take care of our family commitments (because they’ll nag at us if we don’t), but otherwise, we often get so involved in the story, hitting a word count, or meeting a deadline, that we stop eating well, exercising, seeing friends, enjoying our others hobbies (remember those?), and taking time just to be.
Obsession creates a very unhappy soul and an unhappy soul lacks confidence and has a harder time being productive. The best cure I’ve found is setting a time frame and sticking to it. If I complete my two hours, no matter how many words I did or didn’t write, I have succeeded for the day. The rest of the day, I dedicate to the other areas of my life.

Accomplish Other Things. I think the hardest part about long-term projects is that there are a lot less accomplishments along the way. Sure, it’s nice to complete a scene or a chapter, but it isn’t done. It isn’t check-it-off-the-list and celebrate done. And because writing is a process, even when we think it’s done, that’s only until the next round of revisions. In order to feel confident in our ability to be productive, we have to produce regularly. We need to chalk up accomplishments more than once a year. This is what I love about blogging. It gives me the opportunity to finish something on a regular basis. Other ideas are submitting short stories to magazines and anthologies, submitting articles to publications, volunteering in your writing communities, running promo campaigns online, etc. Whatever you do, do something, and make sure you finish it.

The thing about long-term projects is that it gives us a lot more time to think about how things could go wrong, whether or not we’re capable of completing the task and completing it well, and to lose sight of why that novel is important in the first place. But with a little brain trickery, we can keep our motivation and confidence high, shifting our productivity into an upward spiral. Because the more you get done, the more you want to get done. Productivity begets productivity.

After all, there really is something to that saying that if you want something done, give it to a busy person.

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Jamie Raintree writes Women’s Fiction about women searching for truth in life and love. She is currently working on revisions of her first novel in preparation for submission to publishers. In the meantime, she blogs about her journey toward a well-balanced life and a career in publishing–her struggles and successes along the way. She lives in Northern Colorado with her husband and two young daughters and is a Workshop Coordinator for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Subscribe to her newsletter for more blogs, book news, and writer tools like the Writing Progress Spreadsheet. To find out more, visit her website below.
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