Sunday, February 26, 2012

What I learned in grad school: part 1.

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 read it.

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 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.

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