One of the pervasive myths throughout publishing, and one that I hate more than any other, is the belief that you need an MFA to get published. While an MFA can help you improve your writing/find your voice/make new friends it is NOT a magic publishing button. Sure it can help you find a job teaching writing at the collegiate level. If that isn’t your dream maybe an MFA isn’t for you.
Look, an MFA is expensive. Like, mortgage on a modest house in an inner ring suburb expensive. In addition, a lot of people come out of MFA programs as merely adequate writers, and a lot of really good writers have never even attended an MFA program. So here are some easy ways to improve your writing without shelling out THOUSANDS of dollars.
1. Read Books on Craft
Books on craft are great at looking at writing as a holistic approach; that is, giving you a good idea of how to get your butt in the seat with some direction. Craft books can also give a lot of would-be authors the push they need to take their writing to the next level. If you aren’t sure how to get started, books on writing can break down simple concepts like plotting and voice into even simpler pieces, as well as clarifying why your third act tends to break down into the hum-drum “And they lived happily ever after” trope.
FREEBIES: Beth Revis has a Wattpad primer on craft called Paper Hearts. It’s a great starting point for most folks. Courtney Summers also peppers her tumblr with great writing advice, as do many published authors. Find an author whose work you admire and stalk them from afar. By reading and seeing the books they like, you can broaden your own knowledge base.
A SMALL INVESTMENT: I highly recommend Donald Maass’ books The Fire in Fiction and Writing the Break Out Novel, but only one or the other since the books are essentially the same. Stephen King’s On Writing is also a popular writing book, but tends to be heavy on opinion and light on actual advice.
FOR THE ADVANCED WORDSMITH: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is pretty much the go to tome for folks that have mastered the basics of writing. It’s a great resource for stoking the creative fires when they seem to have burned themselves out.
2. Attend a Conference
Conferences are a great way to network and make connections, as well as get great insights into publishing and writing. They are also an excellent way to regain the spark of writing if you’ve somehow lost your way. Be warned, they can be exhausting for the sheer fact of being around so many people, so if you are especially introverted this may be a little too much for you.
FREE: Write On Con is a free conference that takes places every year. Also, social networking is free and is kind of like being at a conference all of the time. Consider joining Twitter (where most publishing folks seem to hang) and checking out message boards like Romance Divas, Absolute Write, and the Verla Kay Blue Boards.
A SMALL INVESTMENT: Many writing associations plan local events. SCBWI, RWA, and SFWA are a few examples. Check out what local events are near you, and make an effort to attend. A lot of the cost of attending a conference is the lodging, so anything within a couple hours drive can really save some moola.
FOR THE ADVANCED WORDSMITH: If you’ve finished a manuscript or you’ve moved beyond local conferences, you’re going to want to think about attending a national conference. These usually involve traveling to a major city and shelling out some dough for a hotel room and attendance. Most national conferences have more agents and editors than any other conference, so your chance for some face time is pretty good. Be warned, though, many don’t offer a very robust listing of craft classes, focusing on publishing trends instead. But even the priciest conference will be much cheaper than an MFA.
3. Take a Class
Most folks considering and MFA are really wedded to taking a writing class, even if they have no idea how they’ll actually pay for a class. I never attended a single craft class before I was published, which might be a good or bad thing, depending on your opinion of my work. However, if you are set on attending a class, you probably should. Just be warned, attending writing classes is pretty much a guaranteed way to find someone who hates your work.
FREE: Check to see if your local library or community center offers any kind of free programming. A lot of libraries offer classes on the basics of writing and craft, and they can be a great way to get the proverbial foot in the door. There is also Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, a website broken up into a class like structure, minus that jerk who thinks he’s the next Faulkner.
A SMALL INVESTMENT: Most local community colleges offer writing courses, the same with most local colleges. To attend a class on the cheap, check to see if your local college will let you audit the course (which basically means you don’t turn in the work or get a grade). It’s all of the knowledge for only a fraction of the cost.
FOR THE ADVANCED WORDSMITH: Media Bistro and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop both offer writing courses with editors and published authors. Taking a class with one or either of them might be a good way to figure out where your writing is lacking. This can be an investment though, so be ready to shell out a few hundred dollars.
And that’s it! A few ways to improve your writing without going bankrupt.
“You have to be alone a lot, you have to be rather sedentary, you have to be a creature of routine, you have to fetishize your solitude, and you have to become very, very selfish about your time.”— Tobias Wolff, on being a writer. From the Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction,” No. 183.
“What I’m sure of is that it’s dangerous to tell women that the goal of a relationship, the only way for a relationship to be “real” is to get married. And I know that telling a girl that sexuality is only about intercourse is dangerous. I know that letting sex be a stand in for validating a teen relationship is dangerous. I know that I don’t want to see relationships, especially for teen girls, take only one shape, over and over, because reinforcing an idea with such a specific prescription is hard on all of us. And we have enough stories we tell about teen girls and the boxes they’re allowed to sit in. We don’t need any more.”—Corey Ann Haydu talks about the relationships narratives — the good and the bad — presented in YA fiction for girls. (via catagator)
When you are 13 years old,
the heat will be turned up too high
and the stars will not be in your favor.
You will hide behind a bookcase
with your family and everything left behind.
You will pour an ocean into a diary.
When they find you, you will be nothing
but a spark above a burning bush,
still, tell them Despite everything, I really believe people are good at heart.
When you are 14,
a voice will call you to greatness.
When the doubters call you crazy, do not listen.
They don’t know the sound
of their own God’s whisper. Use your armor,
use your sword, use your two good hands.
Do not let their doubting
drown out the sound of your own heartbeat.
You are the Maid of Untamed Patriotism.
Born to lead armies into victory and unite a nation
like a broken heart.
When you are 15, you will be punished
for learning too proudly. A man
will climb onto your school bus and insist
your sisters name you enemy.
When you do not hide,
he will point his gun at your temple
and fire three times. Three years later,
in an ocean of words, with no apologies,
you will stand before the leaders of the world
and tell them your country is burning.
When you are 16 years old,
you will invent science fiction.
The story of a man named Frankenstein
and his creation. Soon after you will learn
that little girls with big ideas are more terrifying
than monsters, but don’t worry.
You will be remembered long after
they have put down their torches.
When you are 17 years old,
you will strike out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig
one right after the other.
Men will be afraid of the lightening
in your fingertips. A few days later
you will be fired from the major leagues
because “Girls are too delicate to play baseball”
You will turn 18 with a baby on your back
leading Lewis and Clark
across North America.
You will turn 18
and become queen of the Nile.
You will turn 18
and bring justice to journalism.
You are now 18, standing on the precipice,
trembling before your own greatness.
This is your call to leap.
There will always being those
who say you are too young and delicate
to make anything happen for yourself.
They don’t see the part of you that smolders.
Don’t let their doubting drown out the sound
of your own heartbeat.
You are the first drop of a hurricane.
Your bravery builds beyond you. You are needed
by all the little girls still living in secret,
writing oceans made of monsters and
throwing like lightening.
You don’t need to grow up to find greatness.
You are stronger than the world has ever believed you to be.
The world laid out before you to set on fire.
All you have to do
What are your advices for the new authors? And how did you start writing?
Read a lot. Figure out the kind of stories you love, the ones that push your buttons. Write a lot. Don’t be afraid to just play for awhile with your writing. Have fun, but if it feels hard, that’s okay, too. It IS hard, making books. Remember that writing is what you do, not who you are, and find out what works best for YOU, then chase that. Or, to put it as simply as I can, You Do You.
And my How I Got Started Story is in two parts, here and here, but the short answer is that I was writing before I knew HOW to write (I was a champion Barbie-player), and making up stories is all I really know how to do.
“The burden of debt has become the lens through which I see my workplace, and it is rapidly altering my view of my profession. I can no longer fulfill my classroom duties without wondering if the ultimate price, for many of my students, is a form of indenture. This is not an extreme way of putting it. After all, the indentured have to go into debt in order to find work, and their wages are then used to pay off the debts. I have concluded that it is immoral to expect young people to privately debt-finance a basic social good like education, especially if we are telling them that a college degree is their passport to a livelihood that is increasingly thin on the ground.”—NYU Professor: Are Student Loans Immoral? - The Daily Beast (via ronmarks)
“The notion that people should write what they know is very limiting. Imagination is one of the most powerful tools we have. I use research to guide my imagination, and then I try to find people who can tell me where I’ve imagined wrong. This applies to all of writing, and it’s really no different for writing a diverse character. People fail at this when they abandon research, imagination, and expert assistance for tropes, stereotypes, and ‘what everybody knows’ …”—Author Merrie Haskell (Handbook for Dragon Slayers) at Disability in Kidlit (via disabilityinkidlit)
“The haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”—Researchers at Norway’s Stavanger University say that you’re less likely to remember stuff reading it from a Kindle than you are a book, and the fact that you don’t have to turn the page may be part of the reason.
“I’d like to counter that diversity in children’s media—and in young adult fantasy—is important because it’s for kids. Children and teens know that books aren’t real, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also internalizing the messages. When diverse peoples and cultures aren’t a part of these fantasy worlds, young readers are being repeatedly told that they can’t have adventures like the characters because they don’t look the part, that they are less important than imaginary creatures. They’re being repeatedly told that their exclusion is the norm.”—from More Elves of Color! Why Diversity in YA Fantasy Matters by Lori M. Lee (via bookriot)
“When you read a book, the neurons in your brain fire overtime, deciding what the characters are wearing, how they’re standing, and what it feels like the first time they kiss. No one shows you. The words make suggestions. Your brain paints the pictures.”— Meg Rosoff (via dracoi)