There comes a point in every writer’s journey where they have to decide whether their writing is something they want to pursue on a professional level (as an author) or if they are content to write for themselves and a handful of internet followers (as an amateur writer and blogger).
For me, this turning point in my writer’s journey came about when I decided to pursue my Masters in Creative Writing. I was prepared to invest two years (and a significant amount of money) on my development as a writer. Though I’d been writing in many different forms since I was ten years old, I didn’t consider my work to be of a quality of the books I read and loved. I wanted to improve my craft, so I applied to several MFA programs.
But this post isn’t about how my MFA experience impacted my writing or how I started my writing group.
This post explores how the requirements for my master’s thesis reflect the business aspects of being a professional writer.
Proof-reading, Prefacing, Publishing
The biggest requirement for degree completion was the thesis itself, 150 pages of original, professional material, printed and bound into a hardback book. My thesis consisted of the first ten chapters of the novel I had worked on throughout my time at Stonecoast. Working together with my thesis advisor, we spent the first two months of the semester closely reading the beginning of the novel, looking at everything from continuity errors, places that needed more development, and typos. With the exception of the novel’s first three pages (which I wrote and rewrote multiple times) not much of the content changed in those first ten chapters. Of course, it helped that the thesis version of the novel was the third full rewrite, and by that point most of the issues had been beaten out of it. Still, I struggled with some info-dump sections in the sixth and seventh chapters, and my advisor (with my writing group) helped me find a way to work it all in. Though it was at times tedious, the reality of writing is that it is about 25% creating and 75% revising.
Aside from polishing those chapters, the thesis also required an introduction (called an Artist’s Preface) to explore the major themes of the work and my process as a writer. This introduction was actually the most difficult aspect of the thesis for me because it involved self-reflection. I enjoy analyzing the motives of my characters, but it’s much more difficult when you have to do it for yourself! I imagine that the artist’s statement is an exercise in proving to the world that you can articulate not just what you write, but how you write and why.
The thesis also included a bibliography of ALL the works that you read during the two years of earning your degree and any works previously read that may have influenced your writing. I was advised by a former student to keep a running bibliography from the start of my first residency, so this wasn’t that difficult for me. I think all writers should have a list like this somewhere anyway. It’s important to recognize the artists who have influenced your work—and be able to identify what sets your work apart– for query letters and marketing to new readers once your work is finally published.
Another requirement for graduation is conducting an hour-long presentation for faculty and students during your final residency. Presentations cover topics ranging from craft, pedagogy, community, book intensives, or teaching. For those who are considering using the MFA to teach at a high school or college level, the presentation is a great way to experiment with teaching in a controlled environment. Some presentations are very interactive, with writing exercises, group activities, or skits.
I used my third semester project on creating an adult writing workshop, combined with my experience as a program manager at a literacy non-profit, as the basis for my presentation on literacy in the community. It was something that interested me and it ended up being a topic that appealed to many other students looking for ideas for their own third semester projects.
In the future, I could submit my presentation to a conference on writing, adult education, or literacy in order to get more mileage out of my research and get paid for my time. It also makes an impressive addition to my resume.
Even if you’re not planning to teach, being comfortable speaking in front of a group of peers is an important part of being a professional writer. The days of the writer-as-hermit are over (sorry George R. R. Martin). Now, with Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and YouTube, readers have more access to their favorite authors than ever before. Even if being outgoing doesn’t come naturally to you, you need to adopt a Professional!Writer persona that attracts readers and keeps them coming back to your work time and time again. The most enigmatic writers are asked to be guest speakers at workshops or conference panels.
Also, looking ahead to the day when your book is on the New York Times Bestseller list and your publisher sends you on an author tour to do book signings and readings. You need to be comfortable reading your work aloud to others. And more than just being comfortable, you need to enjoy it! I love the characters in my novel, and I enjoyed reading in their ‘voices’.
How can you make your reading more enjoyable (thereby attracting more readers and selling more copies of your book)? First, choose a section that engages the reader with dialogue and action. Practice reading the section aloud, A LOT! I experimented with different voices, as well as pausing to create suspense. Attend readings at your local bookstore and explore YouTube to find readings that have gone viral. Pay attention to the parts of a reading that engage the audience, because that’s what will sell your book.
The third and final part of the “From Mrs. To MFA” series will discuss how to organize yourself for the publication process.