Writing after the MFA: The Book

Now What MFA Guide

Yeah. Now what?

After I graduated from my MFA program in 2011, I wrote about how it can be a struggle to keep writing after getting a Masters of Fine Arts degree in fiction: you leave a ready-made community of writers and a system of built-in deadlines and head back out into the world, where life is waiting in the shadows, twirling its proverbial mustache and rubbing its hands together with wicked glee, just waiting to get in the way of your good writing habits.

So what do you do? I’ve tried to answer that question for myself on this blog a few times, but now I can share a project I’ve been working on with several other writers, which answers the question in much greater depth.

Allow me to introduce Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success after the MFA. It’s a non-fiction book containing essays by 46 contributors who all attempt to answer that very question: Now what?

The book’s electronic edition is being launched this very evening at the AWP conference, so if you’re out in Seattle right now, you should definitely head to the swanky launch party at the Seattle Art Museum tonight at 6:30 p.m. I won’t be there — I’m too close to my due date for travel —  but all sorts of fun people who are still allowed to drink will in attendance.

I worked as a chapter editor on this book for a little more than a year, so I can say with authority (because I’ve read my two chapters over and over and discussed other chapters with other editors) that although the book is aimed at MFA grads, you don’t need to be one to benefit from the book.

There are essays about finding agents, about the publishing industry, about working with writing groups and there’s one chapter, which I think will be very popular because it addresses the question of how to make ends meet while working on your masterpiece.

Definitely check it out if you’re at AWP this week. (I mean, there’s a party and you’re right there – why wouldn’t you go?) If you’re not there, check it out on Amazon, and if you’re more interested in a physical book, no worries; the paperback edition will be released in July. (Did I mention that the book also includes an article about e-books vs. physical books? Guess who contributed that one.)

 

Here, have my notes from AWP.

I’ve been on about last week’s AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference since I got back home on Sunday. I promise this will be my last blog post about it.

Today I finally organized my notes from the panels I attended last week. Because I used Twitter for this (because it lets me take and pass notes at the same time which would not have been okay in high school but which is okay at a conference), I decided to compile the notes online, with Storify.

If you want those notes, you’re welcome to them. They are here.

They are a work in progress. I still haven’t mined my handwritten notes yet. I will be doing that and adding to the Storify story at some point when my eyes aren’t whirling from organizing my Twitter feed chronologically.

Tweed holds a stink, and other lessons from AWP

Richard Russo, Jennifer Haigh, AWP, Boston.

The best picture I got? A blurry shot of Richard Russo, pouring water for Jennifer Haigh.

I spent Wednesday through Sunday at a writing conference in Boston, and I have what you could probably call an AWP hangover. I am moving around my office slowly, shifting piles of literary journals from place to place, drinking a lot of water and trying hard not to take a nap on the keyboard.

Because I spent three days frantically tweeting the conference, I was planning to write a big post about AWP and the helpful writing things I learned there, but I can’t even. What I can do is give you this list, however, of the things I learned this weekend that may or may not be helpful:

  1. Tweed holds a stink. Launder that vintage jacket, gentlemen. It’s not going to get any less nasty without the help of a dry cleaner.
  2. Take some time to learn how the camera in your new device works before stepping into any convention center. People like photos that aren’t blurry.
  3. Socially awkward writers like to make observations about how socially awkward other writers are. But not in person; on the internet.
  4. Speaking of which, the easiest way to make friends at AWP is via Twitter.
  5. Also, Twitter was the easiest way for me to take notes. (I can read my tweets, which is more than I can say for the notes in my notebook.)
  6. Someone needs to make writer paper dolls, featuring buns, turtlenecks, peaked caps, pencil skirts, Neil Gaiman hair and tweed with cartoon stink lines coming off of it.
  7. If you leave postcards, journals or any other promo materials on a cafe table at AWP, a janitor will come by five minutes later and very politely tip your stuff into the trash.
  8. Ben Percy’s description of literary fiction as a genre* should be inscribed on something in stone.
  9. If you hear Ben Percy’s voice, you’ll understand that everything he says sounds as if it actually is inscribed in stone.
  10. I came out of AWP with a lot of brand new heroes (Jennifer Haigh, Michelle Legro, Sarah Einstein) but Julianna Baggott is my spirit animal. And not just because she led a raid on the men’s bathroom.
  11. OMG. You need a Tumblr.
  12. Take #11 with a grain of salt; someone from Tumblr was on the panel that told me that.
  13. Very few people at AWP want to hear you read from your book. They are much more worried about their own books.
  14. The bigger the author, the more people want to unburden themselves emotionally during those last five minutes of Q&A.
  15. Wine+book fair = event planner genius.
  16. Getting trapped in a panel > getting locked out of one.

*Ben Percy’s definition of literary fiction went something like this: “You may as well call literary fiction its own genre in which a bunch of pretty sentences drink tea and look out a window at boiling clouds until someone has an epiphany.” That’s not it exactly. I hurt myself laughing and couldn’t get the whole quote.

How to revise a novel, according to my commenters.

So, I hear (via the  #AWP12 hashtag on Twitter) that last night, Margaret Atwood brought the house down at AWP with her keynote speech.

I cried a little on the inside when I read those tweets, because I love Margaret Atwood and I’m sad that this was her year to be at AWP and my year to not go. But as I said a few days ago, just because some of us writers aren’t in Chicago doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some knowledge dropped on us.

Earlier this week, I blogged about my fear of revising a novel and issued a plea for help. And, as always, my fellow writers came through in the clutch with all manner of advice.

Here, in no particular order, is the revision advice that I received this week. It’s enough to make a girl want to get revising right away:

“I go over my text a few times, says SickBoyMcCoy, writer of the online serial Bad Blood Bandits. “The first is just to enjoy it. If I can’t do that due to grammatical or spelling or just structure then it warrants change. The second time I go over it and look for ways to push what I have just a little further. The third time I try to detach myself from what I have written and try and think of the most radically different ways I could have told the story and if none of them outshine what I’ve done it stays. It’s enough to drive someone to drink.”

HannahKarena (whose blog is sadly no longer available for me to link to) recommended a technique she read about in No Plot? No Problem! a craft book written by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWrioMo, (For the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month):
“I’m about to start revising my own novel this weekend–I’ve been putting it off for weeks because I’ve never done it before–but I’m going to try the index card organization of scenes method that everyone is raving about .”

E.S. Cameron recently wrote that she’s addicted to revision. Here’s her advice:

“I haven’t yet finished a first novel draft, so I haven’t yet revised one – but it seems to me that how you revise depends on where you are in the process. Start from the top and work down, from macro to micro. This is how I would approach it:

MACRO: The first thing I would look at is the story/plot, and fix any gaping holes/problems. Then I would look at form/structure: is this the best way to tell my story? If the answer is no, I would start moving things around until it worked.

IN BETWEEN: From here, I would look at elements like place/detail, character development, dialogue, etc. to make sure that I’m hitting all my targets in these areas. This step would probably involve adding a fair amount of text.

MICRO: Then I would go though chapter by chapter and start cutting mercilessly – any sentence/scene not carrying its weight would have to go. Finally, I would start doing line by line revisions, looking at my specific word choices and sentence structure, making sure that every sentence does what I need it to. (I feel strongly that people underestimate the importance of sentence structure.) This last step I would repeat as necessary.”

Matthew Dicks, author of Something Missing and Unexpectedly, Milo tweeted this advice: “Read aloud. Remind yourself that this is just the first of many revisions. Try not to hate yourself when it sounds like dirt.”

UPDATE: Whoops! Matt Dicks has also penned another book, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. It was released this week in other countries, but as with all delicacies (seasons of Sherlock, fashions from Europe, etc.) we will have to wait months (it releases in August) before we can get our hands on it in the U.S. European and down-under folks, go find this book! Read it, review it and don’t include spoilers!

Alena Dillon of The Time is Write has revised four full-length manuscripts. Here’s her process:

“When I’m done with my first draft, I print the whole thing out. I too am an underwriter (you mentioned that you are in a blog a few days ago), but most times I have a feeling where I’ve gipped my manuscript. For instance, if I think a theme or a character may be lacking, I’ll flip through the manuscript and highlight whenever it/he/she appears so that I can visually see its/his/her arc. Each theme or character would get its own color: green for mother, pink for loss, etc. I like to see physical presence as vividly as possible, and when I get a sense of that, then I read through and mark where I could write more (or, rarely, less), and what I could write–but I don’t actually do the writing until later. Revision takes a lot of courage and momentum, so I don’t interrupt that if I can avoid it.

If I don’t have a sense of what is needed, I’ll read a craft book, keeping my particular manuscript in mind as I read. For the novel, I read Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyons and took notes of what came to mind that my novel might need done. Then I placed those notes beside me as I read through the manuscript AND MARKED THE HELL OUT OF IT. The more cross outs, stars, arrows to the back page with a list of what is needed, the better.”

After reading all this good advice, I remembered that I myself am not completely without revision resources. One of my mentors once told me to put work away for a month, then to read the whole thing in one day as if I were reading someone else’s work. Also, Rick Moody visited my MFA program to give a lecture on revision. His lecture, I remember, was so exciting that I couldn’t wait to get out of there and revise something.  I didn’t have anything to revise at the time, but I still have the notes from the lecture. I plan to re-read the notes from his lecture, re-read this blog post and get crackin’.

Maybe E.S. Cameron is right; maybe a writer can get addicted to revision.

Writers, do you have tips for revising a novel or memoir?

Last night, I blogged about my horror of revising something as sprawling as a novel. Revising Beware the Hawk wasn’t so bad – it’s a novella. But a 300 page novel? That’s a project.

Now I want to ask the writing community: How do you go about your revisions?

Do you revise chapter by chapter? Do you look at the whole story? Do you print it out? Do you graph it?

I’m thinking of putting revision advice together for a future post. I would love it if you’d share your own tips. You can do that in two ways: Either leave a comment or emailing me at annjoconnell(at)gmail(dot) com. If I get a lot of good advice I will put all the tips up in an upcoming blog post, with attributions (so if you have a blog, also send me the url so I can link to you.)

I know that I might be blogging to an empty room here, since many of my writer friends are headed to the AWP conference in Chicago to chill with Margaret Atwood for the weekend. They are not checking their blog readers. They are running wild though tables of MFA programs and lit mags, tweeting writing advice gleaned from panels as they stuff swag into AWP tote bags.

But why should our AWP-bound buddies be the only ones to have a little knowledge dropped on them this weekend? There are plenty of us who are not in Chicago and who have wisdom to share. So let’s have our own online writers’ panel. How do you revise a long piece of work? Let me know.

Why I Tweet

It seems like every time Twitter comes up in conversation, at least one person wants to know what it is and why it’s important to be Twitter-literate (Twitliterate? Twiterate?)

Why, when there are so many ways to communicate, would you join a service that allows you to write only 140 characters worth of text at a time? My husband, who is new to the Internet, has referred to it as “texting the world.” Who wants to do that?

I’ve had some doubts of my own lately. But then the last two weeks happened and I witnessed a variety of things take place on Twitter. These events ranged from the historic (the unrest in Egypt) to the adorable (watching Rupaul learn to tweet) to the personally relevant (The Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Washington D.C.) After all that, I’m in love with Twitter again. Continue reading