First, I may have a little publishing news for you in a day or so. Stay tuned...
Second, the post below first appeared last month, in a slightly different form, on The Indie Exchange blog. It goes nicely with another guest blog post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, so I thought I would run them both here as well. If you've already read them, sorry about that....
Almost twenty years ago, I decided to try to become a published
fiction author. I had been working as a journalist for about fifteen
years, and had been writing fiction off and on for an additional couple
of decades. I fancied myself a pretty good writer already, but one with
a credibility problem: just because I had a track record as a
journalist didn’t mean a publisher would buy my fiction. I figured the
way to fix it would be to get a master's degree. All it would take, I
reasoned, was to spend a couple of years hobnobbing with professors and
others of the literary ilk, and then presto! I’d have a publishing
contract in no time.
Yeah. Well. It didn’t work out that way.
Oh, I got into a program, all right -- the part-time M.A. program in fiction
writing offered by Johns Hopkins University at their Washington, DC,
campus. Hopkins’ full-time writing program at the Baltimore campus was then second in reputation
only to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That boded well for my goal. But
what I didn’t understand about M.A./M.F.A. programs in writing was that
they’re not necessarily geared toward publishing. Everybody in them wants
to be published, certainly. But most never are.
To make things worse, as loyal readers of this blog will know (all hail the Loyal Readers of This Blog!), I write fantasy, which is considered genre fiction. I tried, for the sake of my grades, to write realistic
fiction in workshop, but it always felt strained to me. And yet my
professors were telling me that literary fiction was highly preferable
to genre, because it was, well, literary.
I did come out of the program with an M.A. and a novel manuscript. It was a dystopian novel, dystopian fiction being somewhat more
acceptable in literary circles than fantasy. My adviser really liked
it. The agent who came to talk to us at one of our last classes asked
me to send it to her. Things were looking good!
Then, many weeks later, the agent sent my manuscript back unread.
She included a nice, apologetic note about how she was too swamped to
Disheartened, I tried to sell some of my short stories -- no takers.
Discouraged, I shelved my dream of a fiction writing career for several
years. In the meantime, I co-authored Live Simply in the City, from which I made exactly zero dollars.
Then, in 2005, some folks I’d met at kevinswatch.ihugny.com decided to try to pull together an anthology of our own fiction. I
wrote a story for that anthology -- the first fantasy story I’d written
in years -- and the anthology committee accepted it. Suddenly, I was
published, sorta kinda. The Kevinswatch crew produced two more anthologies over the next
two years; I wrote a story for each, and each was accepted. Then our
editor, Joy Calderwood, started her own e-publishing house, and asked me
whether she could republish two of the stories I’d written for the
Kevinswatch anthologies. I shrugged. Sure, why not?
Then some people actually paid money for them. I took it as a sign. When I finished The Maidens’ War, I sent it to Joy, and she published it. Now I really was a published author -- no M.F.A. required.
To be fair, I did learn a few things in grad school. As a broadcast
journalist, I was really, really good at writing first drafts, because
that’s all I had time for. I had to learn how to revise my work -- and
how to tell what needs revising. Grad school taught me that. In
addition, I received a lovely, engraved piece of paper that allowed me,
later on, to teach at the university level. But sadly, and more
importantly, grad school turned me away from writing what I’m best at,
and it took me years to get back onto the proper path.
So if you’re wondering whether to go for an M.F.A., I’d recommend
that you examine your motives. If you want to teach, go for it. But if
you think it will fast-track you into the World of Publishing, be aware that it's not very likely.