Ask the Writing Teacher: The Third Person

Dear Writing Teacher, We met at the University of Tampa this past week and you gave me your email address in order to get book suggestions from you. I'm working on a young adult novel in close third person with a decent amount of world building involved in the narrative. I've found it difficult to find contemporary novels (and short stories) that aren't written in first person so any suggestions you have, I would really appreciate. Thanks in advance for your help. Best Regards, Tiffany Dear Tiffany, I have to admit that your question, initially, made me giggle. My in-house statistician hasn't crunched the numbers yet (Nate Silver wasn't available so I hired my dog, Omar Little, and, quite frankly, he sucks at the job), but I'm pretty sure the proportion of contemporary novels narrated in the third person is equal to those narrated in the first.  Or at least it feels that way. I have so many good third-person novels to recommend to you!  Stoner by John Williams. The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. Off Course by Michelle Huneven. The Vacationers by Emma Straub. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. (I'm basically walking through my house, calling out titles. I could do it all day. The Fever by Megan Abbott!) Some of these books limit themselves to one character's consciousness, like Stoner or Off Course. Others, like The Vacationers and The Fever, shift between multiple characters from chapter to chapter, or scene to scene.  In these novels, the distance between the reader and the events of the narrator, or "the psychic distance" as John Gardner puts it, is fairly close. These narratives reflect what James Wood calls, in How Fiction Works, the free indirect style: "As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking." (If you haven't read Wood's book, you can read the first chapter here. And you can read Jonathan Russell Clark's clever and helpful essay on close third here.) The Thin Place is told in a more elevated, all-knowing third-person point of view that skips from one small town resident to the next, including a dog, which is fitting since the book is about the thin scrim between the cosmic and the mundane, and the connection between all things. Everything I Never Told You also shifts its third person perspective, between family members, and its narrator has more knowledge than anyone; the book's first sentence, "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet..." makes that clear, and it emphasizes just how little this family understands about itself. In both these novels, perspective reflects theme especially well. If you're trying for this more elevated perspective, I also suggest you read Edward P. Jones along with 19th-century masters like George Eliot. These writers alight on one perspective and then another and another, deftly providing access to a character's most intimate motives in one passage only to gracefully move away to comment on the scene in the next. They drop Wisdom-with-a-capital-W and it's great fun to read. (And write, I hope!) An omniscient third person narrator feels like a bodiless character who shapes our understanding of the narrative's events. One of my writing teachers declared on multiple occasions that the third person point of view was easier than the first person. I disagree; each is easy and difficult in different ways. The first person has always come more naturally to me. Its performative qualities are revealing; I discover who my character is via language use and voice tics, confession and truth-dodging.  Most importantly, there isn't the elasticity of psychic distance that exists in the third person, which requires control and intention so that the reader doesn't feel like she's riding a narrative tilt-a-whirl. It's disconcerting to be deep inside a character's psyche and then, suddenly, to see him from afar. I bet many first drafts of third-person narrations struggle with finding the best distance from which to tell the story. I recommend you decide what your novel's psychic distance is, and stick to it. If you're after a closer third person perspective, keep in mind Wood's image of the narrative bending around the character's mind so that the language and observations reflect and imply that particular consciousness. Also, avoid using "seeing" verbs; instead of, for instance, "She saw the cup on the table," just say something like, "The cup was on the table." Since it's a close third person, you don't need to tell the reader who is doing the seeing -- that's already implied. It's also easy to forget the body when writing in third person (just as it's easy to forget the external world when writing in first person). One way to lessen the psychic distance between reader and story is to include physical experience: not what others see of the narrator, but how it feels, internally, to be this self: how it feels to be tired, to be restless, to be nauseated, and so on. (One of my pet peeves as a reader is when we learn about the hair of a protagonist from a (supposedly) close third person narration; people have very specific relationships to their hair, and they don't view it, can't experience it, from afar. If you're gonna talk about a character's hair, make sure it expresses the experience of having said hair, rather than something like, "She ran a hand through her shoulder-length straight auburn hair..." which puts me outside the character and her experience. In that example, I'm looking at the character, rather than seeing the world with her.) Since your novel requires world building, I also recommend you read the last story/chapter in Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, "Pure Language," which seamlessly depicts a future New York City and a music industry that caters to toddlers -- or "pointers" as they're known -- from the third person perspective of a guy named Alex. As you read, mark the moments where Egan is providing the reader with expository information about the world. Where does Egan fit it in, and how? Perhaps more importantly, how do these passages reflect Alex's psyche and and shape our understanding of him? For example, look at this passage, where he's describing a woman he's meeting for the first time: Lulu was in her early twenties, a graduate student at Barnard and Bennie's full-time assistant: a living embodiment of the new "handset employee": paperless, deskless, commuteless, and theoretically omnipresent, though Lulu appeared to be ignoring a constant chatter of handset beeps and burps. The photos on her page had not done justice to the arresting, wide-eyed symmetry of her face, the radiant shine of her hair. She was "clean": no piercings, tattoos, or scarifications. All the kids were now. And who could blame them, Alex thought, after watching three generations of flaccid tattoos droop like moth-eaten upholstery over poorly stuffed biceps and saggy asses? I'm interested in how "handset employees" and "clean" are in quotation marks, which allows Egan to not only straight-up define these terms for the reader, but to show that Alex is apart from these communities. The phrasing of "All the kids" shows that Alex isn't as young as Lulu. Overall, the description of her reveals that Alex is attracted to her -- and also intimidated, I think. Egan could have left out the "Alex thought" in the last line -- the sentence would still work without it -- but its inclusion adds a few inches to the psychic distance, which perhaps gives Egan some flexibility of tone when describing this particular future. Part of your quandary, of course, is that you're writing a young adult novel, and I'm no longer giggling because, you're right, there are far fewer third person examples in that genre. Why is that?  My friend Cecil Castellucci, who will publish her 12th (!) young adult novel, Stone in the Sky, in late February, has her own litmus test for categorizing a book as YA. Her definition sheds light on why so many are told in first person: For me, a book is YA when it has a young protagonist and the action is happening right now or has just happened. If a book has a young protagonist, but it is nostalgic or self-aware, then it is an adult book. Castellucci argues that a YA book feels like it's happening "in the now," and that this sense of urgency allows the reader to feel as if she's "on the journey with the character as they clue in and grow." The first person, and in particular the first person present, provides the kind of immediacy that the YA genre so excels at. In the third person, a sense of "nostalgia and awareness," which Castellucci says is usually present in adult books with young protagonists, might creep in. Castellucci says there are beautiful examples of third person YA books, so I asked my friend Katie Coyle, who recently published her first YA novel, Vivian Apple at the End of the World, for her suggestions.  She recommended Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and Malinda Lo's Ash and Huntress. The first two are examples of realism, the third is historical fiction, and Lo's are fantasies. Now that you have these recommendations, I suggest you ban the first person for at least six months. Read only novels written in the third person. Furthermore, try to read third person novels that have the same psychic distance you're aiming for, be it close third, or an elevated omniscience, or something in between. When I'm struggling with a technical challenge in writing, I bang my head against the wall, write and rewrite and write again, and seek out books that have mastered said challenge. It's useful if the book's content is wildly different from mine -- that way, I don't feel like I will accidentally crib its ideas. For instance, if you're writing an epigrammatic novel about, say, the workplace, it would be helpful to read Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell for its succinct and perfect short chapters. (See also: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.) You'll be wise to avoid books that share your subject matter. It's form you're after, not content. Aside from all that, I'd recommend writing, to yourself, your reasons for choosing the third person. Why does the story need to be told this way? It's useful for me to articulate and defend my choices when I'm about halfway through a first draft.  This lets me move partly (but never wholly!) out of intuition and into intention. Intention feels powerful. "Good luck, Tiffany!" she typed as she tucked her silky blonde hair behind her ear. Sincerely, The Writing Teacher

Ask the Writing Teacher: Fifty Shades of Rejection

Dear Writing Teacher, A short story of mine was recently rejected by an esteemed literary journal, which I'll call...Chipped Vase Quarterly. In their rejection, the editors of Chipped Vase Quarterly said that although they weren't accepting my story, they encouraged me to submit more work in the future. This was an emailed rejection, and I've received similar ones from other journals. My question is whether this counts as a personalized rejection, or if it's just a form letter. If it's just a form letter, is it a more positive form letter than others at the journal's disposal?  Are there tiers of rejections? I'm not sure why it matters -- a no is a no is a no -- but, still, it matters. My other question is, if it is a form rejection, whether I should pay attention to its content. Do they really want me to submit something else? Your guidance is appreciated. Thank you, Rejected in Cleveland Oh you poor soul. It seems like only yesterday I was in your position, reading rejection letters as if they were tea leaves, trying to discern some deeper meaning. (Er...probably because it was yesterday.) The rejections that arrive in the mail are often no bigger than toilet paper squares, and just as mute, and the ones that come hurtling into your inbox feel even more impersonal. The whole submission process takes forever and it can be so disheartening to get a no. It shouldn't also be mysterious! What's a poor writer to do? The rejection you described does not sound personalized. Now, don't be crestfallen; it's helpful to remember that the devoted people who read for and edit literary magazines are often overworked and underpaid -- if paid at all -- and that we should not blame them for using form rejections, nor for taking a long time to consider our work. That said, I believe that anything encouraging in a rejection should be taken seriously, form letter or not. Tenacity is the key to being published. (So is revising. And: submitting to magazines whose aesthetics align with your own. Duh.) When someone asks you submit again, do so. If a magazine didn't want you to submit again, then why mention it? Your question isn't about this, but I must emphasize that if a reader or editor writes you what is obviously a personal and specific note about your work, and includes his or her name at the bottom of the rejection, then...hurrah! These readers must wade through piles upon piles of writing, and the fact that they have reached out to you means a lot. Allow it to mean a lot. Sometimes a personal note from a real human being can be almost as good as an acceptance; you really just want to find a reader, right? Well, you found one. Submit again, and again, and again. (For some sobering numbers, here are mine: it took me approximately five years to get a story accepted by McSweeney's, and I have been submitting to One Story for over a decade -- and counting. Sorry, One Story, but I am not giving up!) Since I have never worked at a magazine, I was unsure about tiers of rejections. I've wondered this myself over the years. To get an informed answer, I decided to query some highly respected magazine editors and readers to see what they had to say on the topic. Their answers are varied, but also quite similar: I don't know about other magazines, but we do have tiers of rejections. For the slush pile we have two form rejections: One reads "Thank you for submitting your work...We regret that we are unable to publish it." The other includes the line "we like your work and would like to see more of it."  Work that is submitted directly to me usually receives a personal reply, by hand or by e-mail, depending. And then there are those cases when a submission gets lost on my computer, or underneath somebody's desk and the months go by...but we are trying to eliminate that tier. -Lorin Stein, editor, The Paris Review PANK has three tiers of rejection. Our form rejection simply says thank you but your work wasn't right for PANK; we also ask writers to wait thirty days before resubmitting. We have a second rejection where we enjoyed the writer's work but encourage them to resubmit after thirty days has passed. Our most personal rejection, often accompanied by a note from an editor, is for the work we love and hate to say no to, and we encourage these writers to resubmit anytime. The quality of the work dictates which rejection a writer will receive. -Roxane Gay, co-editor, PANK The Missouri Review uses a submission management program called Submission Manager. Several other magazines use it, too — Ploughshares, for one — and most writers are certainly familiar with the system. It’s easy to upload the manuscript and the writer receives an automated “Thank you for submitting your work” email from us. Email is how we contact the writer, regardless of our decision. Over the course of a year, we receive approximately ten thousand submissions, and of those, we publish about forty or fifty manuscripts per year. SubMgr allows the editorial staff to create different types of rejection emails. We do have what we call a “form rejection.” In the last five months, about thirty percent of our rejections receive our form rejection. Any litmag editor will say the same thing: we would like to be able to give a personal response to every writer, but the sheer volume of work we receive makes this impractical, if not impossible. We do receive plenty of submissions that are wholly inappropriate for our magazine and/or poorly written, but we never tell the writer to take a long walk off a short pier and hug an octopus. After all, no matter what we think on our end, chances are that the writer, regardless of his or her ability, spent weeks on the story. Our entire editorial staff is made up of writers: we know how tough this process is and we would never insult a writer in such a manner. All other rejections can be considered “personal,” though we do have templates that plugin some basic information, such as the writer’s name and the title of the work that was submitted. We encouraged our interns and editors to provide encouragement, not criticism, about the manuscript. Something such as “we really enjoyed the energy and detail of the penultimate scene between Paul and Joanne.” It’s important for our writers to know which pages worked best for us. This, of course, might not be true of any other magazine (another editor may love the opening scene more) but it gives the writer a good sense of what fits TMR for any future submissions. We always encourage the writer to submit again. We have no idea who the writer is, and we’ve published many authors who have been trying to get into our pages for years. So we always want to let writers know that we would like a chance to read their future work. -Michael Nye, managing editor, The Missouri Review The Rattling Wall e-mails out three types of rejections. First, and most common, the basic "no thanks" rejection. Second, if the reading staff and I really enjoyed a writer's voice, but the piece they submitted isn't right for the issue we're making, I'll e-mail the writer and encourage them to submit again. Third, I will (rarely) e-mail a writer and ask them to "hold" a submission that I love for a future issue of The Rattling Wall. The few times I've done this, I've always told the writer they can "pull" their piece any time during the hold, as I realize it's a lot to ask of someone who is eagerly submitting. -Michelle Meyering, editor, The Rattling Wall At Slush Pile, there is usually only me and I personally read through every submission.  What I would love for writers to understand about the reading process is: that first paragraph -- that first sentence -- is invaluable, because if it fails, there is no reason for me to carry on reading the submission.  There is a standard reject that goes out, generally to writers who have submitted too early (as in, they haven't properly polished their story or they just haven't spent enough time honing their prose) or to people who are just writing in a style that is wrong for the magazine. Since Slush Pile lays a pretty heavy premium on literary prose, this is often experimental fiction or stories that are written with attention to plot over prose. If a person is writing in a style that is suitable for the mag, but the story itself does not appeal to me in subject matter or because, perhaps, their writing is not quite on the level, but I feel like it might be soon, they get a kind rejection. I will also generally send a personal note to anyone whose cover letter makes it obvious that they have spent time reading the magazine. Most submissions are sent out blindly, like spam, so it's always nice when someone is actually submitting because they enjoy the mag. At Harvard Review, things are a bit more complicated. There are sometimes as many as ten readers on the first tier (but often fewer). A story goes to at least two of them before it is rejected and, if it is recommended twice, it makes its way on over to me. I have a look at it, and if I like it, I pass it along to Laura and Christina (managing editor and editor, respectively). The number of submissions we receive at Harvard Review are wild, so that limits our ability to send more personal rejection letters (although, sometimes we do) and significantly hinders our ability to respond in a timely manner. Sometimes people are waiting upwards of a year before they hear a final decision from us, but we do read all of the submissions. Christina says she tells people to send along their submission and then try to forget about it. I tell people by way of encouragement -- and this is honest -- that the longer it takes us to respond, the better the submission did. If you have to wait eight or ten months before you hear back and then receive a standard rejection, that's got to be completely disheartening. But maybe it softens the blow to know that four or five people liked it, first. -M. R. Branwen, Editor & Publisher, Slush Pile Magazine, and Senior Reader of Unsolicited Fiction, Harvard Review The specifics for us are basically just that we have two different rejection templates within Submittable -- the basic no, and the little bit (though admittedly not much) more nice/encouraging one. I'll also say, how these two get doled out is pretty subjective and all over the place. We have a team of editors, though we generally take turns instead of conferring. For the website, the three fiction editors/two poetry editors take month-long turns and they get total autonomy during their turn. So, you know, one might just always use basic No, not wanting to worry about distinctions; another, nicer editor might practically always use the nicer no; and everything in between. -Aaron Burch, editor, Hobart McSweeney’s has definitely had varying tiers of responses over the years, depending on how we were sorting through submissions and who was doing the rejecting. We’ve asked writers whose work we liked to include code words on the envelopes or subject lines of their ensuing submissions, to ensure we’d pull them out of the pile; we’ve had readers add personal responses to our reply cards, in some cases; and we’ve employed various other proprietary tweaks, too. When we come across someone we want to hear more from, we’ll try to make that clear, for sure. -Jordan Bass, editor, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern As you can see, I was correct in assuming that a rejection that asks you to submit again should be taken seriously. (See? I am always right!) Also, it's clear to me from these answers that the submission/acceptance process isn't scientific. Literary magazines are created by real, living people, and real, living people are particular and idiosyncratic. We cannot fault them for loving what they love, which means we also can't fault them for not loving what they don't love. In the end, they're just looking for a terrific short story...whatever that means to them. So get off the internet and write one, why don't you? Sincerely, The Writing Teacher Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].

Ask the Writing Teacher: Story Arc(s)

Dear Writing Teacher, Could you explain in as much detail as possible what a story arc is? Thank you, Narratively Challenged I'm gonna be straight with you: I have put off answering this question not only because I've been busy editing my novel and potty training my kid, but also because it fills me with a swampy kind of dread. The thought of a student asking me this question in a classroom, where I would have to improvise a coherent answer, is enough to make me retire. Story arc?! It feels like I'm stuck in that dream I have fairly often, the one where I'm pushed on stage to perform a hip hop dance routine I've only just learned and haven't sufficiently rehearsed.  The horror! Okay, okay, deep breath, 5-6-7-8, here I go... At some point, you probably learned the traditional notion of story arc:  there's an inciting incident, then rising action, then a climax, and then a resolution--or, as I like to say in a husky voice, a denouement. Your sixth grade teacher probably showed you that familiar story arc graph, the one that looks like a steep mountain, or maybe a mountain range. Years later, someone might have said to you, "A story needs a beginning, a middle and an end!" Someone else might have cried out, "You need to introduce conflict!" Honestly, all that stuff leaves me cold and confused. Once again, I find myself considering retirement. The truth is, I'm not sure I know anything about story arc as it's traditionally discussed, so I can't really describe it in  detail. That's not to say, however, I haven't investigated the topic, for myself and my students. I have. Story arc continues to perplex and thrill me. Two years ago I wrote an essay about the plot lessons of Irish crime writer Tana French, which touches somewhat on this topic. In that piece, I explored the ways French subverted my preconceived notions of plot. This essay might be useful to you as you think about this sticky topic. And now, I will quote myself, attributing it as such, so as not to pull a Jonah Lehrer: If a scene is the completion of an action in a specific time and place, then plot is...what, exactly? I’d venture to say that it’s the relationship between these scenes. It’s the irresistible pull–and meaningful accumulation of–cause and effect. (“The king died and then the queen died of grief,” as E.M. Forster famously put it.) Beyond the world of storytelling, plot is defined as a secret scheme to reach a specific end. Or it’s a parcel of land. Or it means to mark a graph, chart, or map: the plotting shows us what has changed; our ship is headed this way. To a writer (me) interested in (obsessed with?) plot-making, all of these are significant definitions. The lessons abound. I once read somewhere that Margaret Atwood compared novel writing to performing burlesque: don’t take off your clothes too slowly, she advised, or the reader will get bored; get naked too fast, and the entertainment ends before it can really begin. I put that in my plot-pocket, too. Arc is tied into notions of plot because both concern action, event, and change as they relate to character. I want to say that arc is the structure on which plot hangs. And now, a second later, I want to say that arc is the unfolding of plot, the specific path that events take to enable a character to move through a story. And now, two seconds later, I want to say that if plot is the what and the why, then arc is the how.  As you can see, I'm still working all this out in my mind. While plot always emerges from character (at least, for me it does), I don't think arc necessarily has to be related to character. There are multiple ways to think about arc when you're writing. The first is, indeed, with character. There's the oft-trotted-out rule that the story's protagonist has to change for the story to be successful, and though I agree with that much of the time, I don't think that's always the case. Change should occur, but not necessarily within a character. If it is character, you'd be wise to (binge) watch the television series Orange is the New Black to chart heroine Piper Chapman's transformation from prissy, naive, and entitled young white woman to young white woman who is learning (trying? failing?) to shed her prissiness, naivete, and entitlement. Prison has changed her -- hasn't it? One could argue that the former version of herself would not -- spoiler alert! -- have beaten the shit out of a fellow human being. The arc is terrific because you can chart its progress: you can see how every conflict that arises pushes Piper and molds her. The question is whether you can see that same cause and effect in your own work. I watched Orange is the New Black as I read Donna Tartt's forthcoming novel, The Goldfinch (that's right, people, I snagged that galley!), which is a massive and magnificent story about an orphaned boy and his relationship to art, the world, and himself in the wake of terrible grief. In both the TV series and the novel, I kept my eye on character arc. In each, the hero's view of him- or herself shifts, as does his or her behavior. In The Goldfinch, however, that change is slow and complicated, and for much of the book, it's the unchanging, repetition of destructive behavior that's tragic yet dramatic. In Tartt's novel, the hero's desire for meaning, coupled with a need for solace and connection, pushes the character to act, be it in a new way or an unchanging one. His arc is thus thornier than anything on television, but it's no less compelling. It reminds me of what my friend and colleague Adam Cushman, who recently taught a seminar on story structure for Writing Workshops Los Angeles, told me: "The greatest story arcs are layered, and conflict us emotionally. I call this falling forward, or using creative destruction as a way to create emotion." Another arc I'm interested is in the reader's. As one scene follows the next, the reader amasses more and more information about the characters and their turmoil, about the situation they're in. A reader thus experiences her own series of revelations and emotional responses, which may or may not mirror the protagonist's. (Side note: I recently re-read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and it got me thinking about how, with speculative fiction in particular, much of the narrative drive is puzzling together what's happened to the world, and how, and why. Exposition-gathering is its own satisfying arc! Discuss among yourselves.) Aside from -- or instead of? -- thinking about your character's arc, you might consider your reader's. What do you want your reader to feel at the beginning of your story? How about at the end? What needs to occur, what information needs to be supplied, in order to make your reader feel such-and-such? What I really want to know is: What if a character doesn't change, but the reader's perception of that character does? (I think, in fact, this is what Oryx and Crake does, and does well.) The last kind of arc that interests me is the arc of language. (The Arc of Language should be the title of my next novel. I promise it'll be beautiful but super boring.) This can refer to how language evolves within a text as a whole, or within a chapter or even a paragraph. This is actually the arc I pay the most attention to during a first draft, for I don't yet know enough about my characters or the story to make huge decisions. In many cases, language sheds light on the choices I need to make for the manuscript as a whole. In my classes, I love to teach John Gardner's "foreplay paragraph," which is what he calls a paragraph that precedes a big reveal--like that of a dead body. In this kind of paragraph, the writer has to signal to the reader that something big is up ahead, while still making the prose good enough that the reader won't want to skip over it.  In this exercise, Gardener is tipping his hat to the way language itself evolves in a narrative: to signal, reflect or incite change. Next time you're writing, consider if your piece records any kind of aesthetic change. Does the language start lyrical and move toward something more minimal? Does the voice go from barbed to vulnerable and back again? If you want, you can isolate a paragraph, and consider how it moves, how it affects the reader, how it reveals character, setting or conflict, as it progresses. Sometimes arc is best understood when considered on the smallest level. And now that I have thoroughly confused you, here are some homework assignments that might help turn my abstract ramblings into something more applicable to your writing life: 1. Read a short story with a friend. Afterward, draw the arc of the narrative without discussing it with your friend, and have your friend do the same. Interpret the word "arc" any way you see fit; the point is to make the narrative visual. Then, compare drawings and discuss their similarities and differences. I highly recommend doing this exercise with "In a Bear's Eye" (from the collection of the same name) by Yannick Murphy, which is lovely and strange. I once had my students break into groups to draw this story's arc. Each arc was so different from the next, but they all made sense. 2. After you've written a short story or a chapter, take a look at your scenes and/or sections (if it's summary). On an index card, write down what happens in each scene or section -- keep it brief. Next, write down what the reader has learned plot- or character-wise, and then, what the character feels at the beginning of the scene versus what he or she feels at the end of the scene. Lastly, write down the questions raised and answered by the scene. These questions can be specific and literal, or not (anything from "Where is the dress?" to "Why does she believe herself inadequate?") Some questions might carry from scene to scene, never to be answered, and others might be quickly resolved. Any scene that doesn't ask or answer interesting questions, and doesn't push the reader and/or the character into new territory, probably should be revised or cut. Please, remember: don't do this until you're finished with a draft! You don't want to over-think matters! 3. Find a paragraph from fiction that you really love, and retype it as if it were your own. Then, taking the structure of this paragraph -- its syntax, its sentence-lengths, its logical twist, etc. -- write an emulation paragraph that copies only form, not content. Here's one from Inferno by Eileen Myles that I am currently reading and rereading, which you might like to use: The next book we will read she said, pulling the shade on existentialism for the moment, is a much older text. It's part of the tradition, but is a very modern book, quite political. She had this cute glint when she was being smart which was always. She wasn't big smart, she didn't clobber you with words. She just kind of befriended us like wolves but she believed that wolves were good and could be taught too. But she was from New York, was Jewish and had been born intelligent. She was blonde. Are Jews blonde. I didn't know. I would learn so much more. Sometimes her jersey was nearly green but that was as dark as it got. Unexpected and great, right? Maybe this last exercise has nothing to do with arc, but it's fun and difficult, which is how I would describe writing to my grandma, or my gynecologist. Also, it's an important reminder that a story arc is made up of words and more words, that's it, and thank goodness. Godspeed, Narratively Challenged, this is all I've got. Sincerely, The Writing Teacher Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].

Ask the Writing Teacher: A Spork in the Road

Dear Writing Teacher, I'm guarding my heart. I saw a colleague a couple nights ago and we talked about standing on the ledge of a writing project but not wanting to get too involved because what if this is not the one? What if it's not a book? So I need to get honest. I'm stuck at a three pronged fork in the road -- a spork. I'm stuck at a spork in the road. I have three possible projects, all different, but all gleaned from some of the same material, so I'd have to make a Sophie's choice and I'm spooked. I wish someone could tell me what to do, but in the end I know no one can tell me. Sometimes it seems really trivial, like getting stuck on what to wear and I just need to forget about it and just get dressed and get the fuck out of the house already.  Or is it more deliberate than that?  I don't know... any tips? Sincerely, Stuck My immediate response to this letter is to cry, "A spork in the road?  I love it!" Should one of your projects be a memoir, I suggest you call it that. I'll be first in line to get a signed copy. In all seriousness, though, I identify with the fear you're experiencing. (See: this.) A project that you haven't yet begun can still glitter in the mind, but as soon as you set it down to paper, the thing is tarnished by the limits of your skill and talent. And what if you start something, only to realize it isn't anything at all? As I typed that question, a metaphorical ice-cube slid down my spine. The thing is this: yes, you just need to get dressed and get the fuck out of the house. The house is safe, but it will suffocate you. You can't pace those rooms forever. (Side story: In elementary school, my sister could never figure out what to wear. It was a problem. More than once, my mom had to drag her into the car. My sister would be weeping, in her pajamas, and she'd end up at school in whatever clothes my mom had tossed at her. There's a lesson in here, young grasshopper. Namely, my sister was struggling with emotional issues that were getting misdiagnosed as fashion quandaries.) I suggest this, Stuck: welcome with open arms the failures that inevitably come with any writing project, and be comforted by the fact that you can rewrite later. Also: it's when you need to write yourself out of a pile of shit that the interesting stuff happens. I am intrigued, and a little troubled, by the wording of your question. Your opening phrase, "I am guarding my heart," is followed by, "What if this is not the one?" Honey, you aren't a contestant on The Bachelor, you're a writer! Even if the project you do commit to (out of the three possible ones) ends up being the best one to pursue, it doesn't mean you can't later take one of the others to the fantasy-suite-that-is-your-desk. Unless you fancy yourself the next Harper Lee (okay, who doesn't?), your career will be made up of many books. So what if they're all gleaned from the same material? Look at Alice Munro -- she writes about mothers and daughters, train rides, and tall women over and over (and over) again, and still we salivate at the thought of reading her latest story in The New Yorker. In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, "You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment." If what astonishes you, if what has traumatized you and exhausted you and inspired you and remade you, remains the same for your whole life, so be it. Your audience will follow your always-evolving relationship to this material. It will be your material. And stop guarding that heart! (This is true for both writers and contestants on The Bachelor -- it's the only way to win. That, and being a sweet Southern girl with a killer bod.) Amy Hempel has quoted her teacher Gordon Lish as saying, “Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive." Amen, amen, amen. Now that my pep talk is over, here are some (sort of) practical tips to help you on this sporked journey: 1. You might try working on the three projects simultaneously. Mondays, try Project 1, Tuesdays, Project 2, and Wednesdays, Project 3. On the fourth day, pick the project that sings the prettiest, and work on that. You might take a decade and end up with three books. Or you might pretty quickly see that one project is the least tarnished and abandon the other two (for the time being). Choice made. If the day-to-day schedule doesn't suit you, try week-to-week, or one project per month. 2. Take a moment and consider your worst writing nightmare. Is it that you waste a year on one project, only to realize it was the wrong one? Is it that all three ideas end up sucking? I say, revel in that sick fantasy for 20 minutes. Really: set a timer and close your eyes. Cry if you must, scream, go kick the garbage cans outside. Get it all out. Okay, done?  Now that you've indulged yourself, get to work. 3. Even if you make a "bad" choice in writing, or make a wrong turn, remember that many amazing books came to authors as they were struggling through other books. Marilynne Robinson has said that's how Gilead came about. Jeffrey Eugenides writes about this very process in his essay "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write The Marriage Plot." And I just read this article about Maria Semple and her second novel Where'd You Go, Bernadette: "And after spending two years attempting to write what Semple described as a “commercial” novel about two sisters in Colorado, she abandoned the project completely." I am sure the day Semple decided she couldn't continue that book was a dark one. But, you know what? Out of that came this terrific novel that tons of readers love. You must proceed from the notion that your ideas aren't finite, that there's always another glittering book around the bend. Let me repeat: Your ideas aren't finite. 4. Just start, and let the work be your guide. The project that deserves your immediate attention will let itself be known, it will pull you in like an ocean current. And if it doesn't, well, keep swimming until you find it. (You're swimming now, see? Forget the walking/road image!) Good luck. Sincerely, The Writing Teacher Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].

Ask the Writing Teacher: Novelists on First Drafts

Dear Writing Teacher, I am a published fiction writer who is about to start writing a new novel. You would think, since I've already done this before, that I knew what I was doing. But I don't. I am lost. Where do I start? What do I need to know about my story and my characters before I begin? What should I just figure out as I go? Suddenly, the idea of writing that first draft seems impossible, and I am terrified. I'd greatly appreciate any guidance you could offer me! Sincerely, Facing the Blank Page Man oh man, I could've written this question to myself! I, too, am about to start a new novel, and I'm wondering how in the hell I did it before (two times, in fact), and how in the hell I'll ever do it again. Take comfort in the fact that you aren't alone in your despair; thousands of writers face their white screens every day, uncertain of how to proceed. I've heard from many authors that each novel offers its own unique demands, its own unique joys, and that you must re-learn the process with each go. Let that inspire rather than scare you -- would you really want a redundant experience? In this essay, excerpted from the book Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Jennifer Egan talks about the process of writing Look At Me: It was a huge struggle. I’m not quite sure why I suffered to the degree I did while working on that book, but I do know that my work up to that point had been fairly conventional, and I didn’t know if anyone would accept this kind of book from me. It was almost as if I thought I’d be punished for it. I felt afraid as I worked on it. I thought it was terrible, that I was reaching too far. At the same time, some of the most exciting moments I’ve had as a writer were during the writing of that book, even with all those worries and that feeling of doom. One day I read the first six chapters of the book in one sitting, and I tore out of the house and went running, and I had this sense that I’d never read anything quite like that before, that I’d done something really different. That was such a thrilling feeling -- a rarity as I was working on it. I keep returning to this passage as I begin to think about my own new book. Why should I be afraid to be challenged? If the writing will be painful, then it will be painful. Just as often, it won't be. I simply must sit down and see. As for how one goes about writing a first draft, I like to practice the art of acceptance.  In The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, Ann Patchett describes how she plans much of her novel in her head before she sets a word of it on paper. Her dear friend and reader, Elizabeth McCracken, is a very different kind of novelist. Patchett writes, "I get everything set in my head and then I go, whereas Elizabeth will write her way into her characters' world, trying out scenes, writing backstories she'll never use.  We marvel at each other's process, and for me it's a constant reminder that there isn't one way to do this work." Amen to that! Novel writing can be fun, but it can also be daunting and challenging, more frustrating than untangling the necklaces at the bottom of your jewelry box. The last thing you need is to question your own process. Still, when I'm writing a first draft, I, like you, long for some direction. Does it make sense to figure out the retrospective voice now, or can I deal with that later? Should I do the research now, or is it a second draft problem? How about chapter length -- does that matter now? (Does it matter ever?) There are so many questions zipping across a lonely writer's head as she sits at her desk working. I decided to ask some writers I admire what they try to figure out with their first drafts. What, I asked them, do you need to know before you begin? And what do you try to solve as you're working on that first draft? Their answers were as brilliant and as varied as I expected: My opinion is that you want to figure out character and plot in the first draft. I think it's also a good idea to have the setting nailed down in the first draft, if possible; moving the narrative to another location can entail some pretty tedious rewrites. It's also a good idea to figure out whether the book's going to be in the first person or the third person as early on as possible, because changing pages and pages of text from one to the other is an insanely labor-intensive process. My feeling is that you don't need to waste your time obsessing over pacing in the first draft, because that's the kind of thing that can change completely in revisions. In your first round of revisions you'll inevitably end up cutting a lot of material, and that will change the pace of the book, so I think pacing is something best refined toward the end of the process. -Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet I think my answer might be a little bit controversial -- I think almost nothing is worth sweating in the first draft. Does a character need to change genders? Do you want to shift the structure? Just do it, and keep moving forward. Finishing a draft of a novel is so hard, and so enormous, that one needs all the momentum possible. If you stop and go back to the beginning every time you want to change something, you will never finish. Just go go go! You will have the time to go back and fix all your mistakes, right your wrongs, etc. Just get to the end of the first draft. The feeling of accomplishment is sweet enough to spur you on to make even the most major changes in revision. -Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures In the first draft I'm just trying to figure out what the story is or might be. I'm trying to learn the story, and trying to stay open to the possibilities that the original idea might be capable of generating. The only way to learn the story is by writing it, but how do you write it when you have only the vaguest notion of what the story is, and who the characters might be? That's a problem. The problem, eh? The only way I learn it is by writing it line by line, page by page. My expectations for first drafts are pretty low. I don't worry about polishing the language at all, or fine-tuning character or plot. I'm basically just trying to figure out what the story might be. -Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk There's a huge gap between what I need to know and what I do know when I begin a novel. If I waited until I knew at least thirty percent of what I should know before diving in, I think I'd be permanently stuck on the springboard. Normally (and I'm talking from the experience of a meager two books here) I know two things: a place and a person. The place is usually vivid. I could go on about it for pages. But the person is a cardboard cut out—two dimensional. Magician. Musician. Drunk. Shopkeeper. What I have to force myself to figure out is a single incident that sets the story in motion. It might be removed later on, but I need to pick one action which might cause this person to move about this place. Since I know so little about my character(s) when I first commit them to paper, I tend to overwrite them, cramming all sorts of overblown background detail into my first draft, which in turn drags down what little plot I initially have. My second draft is all about fixing that balance, pruning the obsessive background information and replacing it with more action in the novel's present. -Ivy Pochoda, author of the forthcoming Visitation Street For me, the first draft is really just a big mud-rolling, dust-kicking, mess-making time in which my only job is to find the story's heartbeat.  I allow myself to invent characters without warning, drop them if they prove to be uninteresting, change the setting in the middle, experiment with point of view, etc.  I figure that the body will grow up around the heart, that it's always possible to bring all the various elements up and down, sculpt and polish, as long as I've got something that matters to me.  The second draft (and the 3rd through 20th, Lord help me) involves getting out the tool belt and thinking like a carpenter.  But the first draft is all dirt and water and seeds and, hopefully, a little magic.  Of course, this method means that my first draft is almost unreadable.  Maybe someday I'll invent a way of making a slightly cleaner mess, but until then, I try to enjoy the muck. --Ramona Ausubel, author of No One is Here is Except All of Us The thing I try to resist in writing my first drafts is getting too caught up in the sentences. I am capable of revising "The cat sat on the mat," a dozen times and then coming back to the original. At the same time I think that two of the most crucial decisions we make when writing a novel are about the music and the tone so I am always hoping to discover those as I work on my first draft. I try in my first drafts to make as many decisions about character as I can stand. It's tempting to leave things vague but I do think it's very helpful to know a character's name, age, class, occupation, manner of speech, and have some sense of physical appearance as early as possible. That said it will often take me much of a first draft to decide that Rosemary is thirty-two, a physiotherapist .... It is hard in revision to, for example, change a character's name -- it becomes part of the music of the prose -- but I've often had to. I try in my first draft to decide what kind of species my chapter or section will be, and how time will pass. And I try in my first draft to make as many decisions about plot as I can. What journey are these characters on? What is their destination? Often I notice in revision that I have several scenes which all do the same thing in terms of characterization and plot and I will end up picking the best, or combining them. I try to remind myself that the first person for whom I'm writing is myself; some of what I write in the first draft is scaffolding. It helps me to get the story under way but the reader doesn't need to see it. And I can dismantle it later. -Margot Livesey, author, most recently, of The Flight of Gemma Hardy For the first draft I need to know only enough to keep going. No more, no less. -Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City I hope that's a little helpful, my dear writer.  Now, on with it: get to work. Sincerely, The Writing Teacher Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].

Ask the Writing Teacher: Transitions

Dear Writing Teacher, How does a writer attach one scene to the next without saying "And then..."?  I find myself stuck in one room or place forever because I can't make the move to another place or time gracefully. Sincerely, Languishing in the Parlor   I love this question because it's about the mucky parts of writing that are more difficult than you expect them to be. It's often these micro-level mechanics that slow a writer down, make her feel like she's oiling the rusty joints of robots rather than conjuring and exploring the lives of real people with meaningful problems. Fluidity is what I long for, anyway, when I'm working; I want to feel like I'm "inside" of my own text, participating in its unfolding in a way that is intuitive, natural, and enjoyable. Being overly conscious of transitions gives me a distancing, jerky feeling that is the opposite of fluid. Ugh. Just, ugh. The nice thing about writing is that there are many different approaches, and readers are cooperative creatures with nimble minds: teach them early on how you like to transition, and they'll learn to dance to the beat of your rhythm. In thinking about this question, I took a look at how authors of the books I've read recently dealt with this technical challenge.  To keep this manageable, my examples look at transitions within a section, scene or passage, but you can extrapolate these lessons to work for scene-to-scene problems, too. First, check out the opening of the svelte and lovely novel Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith: Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably will never go. As a child in a small town on Cook Inlet in Alaska, she saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at sea before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture. She was nine years old, on a trip to her aunt's with her mother and sister, the first time she visited a real metropolis: Seattle. She took it all in -- the towering buildings and industrial warehouses, the train tracks and bridges, the sidewalk cafes and neighborhood shops, and the skyline along Highway 99, the way the city seemed to rise right out of Elliot Bay,  mirroring the Olympic Mountains across the sound. The breadth and the details overwhelmed her, but soon she loved the city in the same way she loved the landscape of the north. Old churches were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees. She began collecting postcards of other cities: Paris, London, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Barcelona. She borrowed books from the library and watched old movies, just to get a glimpse of these other places. She imagined visiting them, walking the streets, sleeping in creaky beds in hostels, learning a few words of every language. Now, this is summary, not scene, but it's still instructive. Smith's writing is crisp, somehow spare and lyrical at once, and throughout the novel it feels as if there's something living beneath and beyond the sentences; implication runs deep. She's pretty bold, I think, in the leaps she makes here: sometimes a paragraph break is all she needs to set off on a  new idea, and she moves us into Isabel's trip to Seattle with just a sentence. This passage ends here, and it's followed by a space break. After this break she writes: "Isabel finds the postcard of Amsterdam on Thursday evening, at her favorite junk store, across from the food carts on Hawthorne." The link between this and the last passage makes sense, but it's subtle, and not explained outright. Reading Glaciers reminded me that the movement between paragraphs can be surprising, and that space breaks can provide a useful exhale before you transition to a new time frame or narrative register. The trick is not to exploit such tools; once you're done writing a draft, investigate your white-space, to make sure you aren't purposefully gliding over a moment you're too chicken-shit to write, and make sure your paragraphs have, if not a clear chain of events, at least an emotional and image-driven logic. It might help you to utilize this technique when you're first getting a scene down: write what comes to you, and leave the muck of transitional sentences for later. It might turn out that you don't need them. Now let's turn to the deliciously plotted and clever crime novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which dazzled me from its first sentence. Here are a few paragraphs from 15 pages in, the opening of a chapter that begins in scene. I swung wide the door of my bar, slipped into darkness, and took my first real deep breath of the day, took in the smell of cigarettes and beer, the spice of a dribbled bourbon, the tang of old popcorn. There was only one customer in the bar, sitting by herself at the far, far end: an older woman named Sue who had come in every Thursday with her husband until he died three months back. Now she came alone every Thursday, never much for conversation, just sitting with a beer and a crossword, preserving ritual. My sister was at work behind the bar, her hair pulled back in nerdy-girl barrettes, her arms pink as she dipped the beer glasses in and out of hot suds. Go is slender and strange-faced, which is not to say unattractive. Her features just take a moment to make sense: the broad jaw; the pinched, pretty nose; the dark globe eyes. If this were a period movie, a man would tilt back his fedora, whistle at the sight of her, and say, "Now, there's a helluva broad!" The face of a '30s screwball-movie queen doesn't always translate in our pixie-princess times, but I know from our years together that men like my sister, a lot, which puts me in that strange brotherly realm of being both proud and weary. "Do they still make pimento loaf?" she said by way of greeting, not looking up, just knowing it was me, and I felt the relief I usually felt when I saw her: Things might not be great, but things would be okay. Now, what I get from this scene, aside from killer descriptions like "the spice of a dribbled bourbon," is what Joan Silber, in her book The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes, calls "selective concreteness." Flynn isn't including every little thing that Nick encounters as he enters his bar, she's giving us only the details that matter to him, and that direct our gaze to what's important to the scene and the book as a whole; in this case, it's Nick's familiarity with this space, and his relationship to his twin sister. It's also interesting that Sue, the widow, is mentioned, because at its heart, this is a novel about marriage and marital dysfunction. I also notice how seamlessly Flynn moves between action of the scene, background information, and opinion. She transitions in and out of the present action as easily as your own mind does: you're engaging with the external world, then thinking about something, then back to the world, and so on. Here, Flynn uses the visual image of Go's glass-washing arms to move us into a general description of Go's looks. It seems natural because it is natural: Flynn is inside of Nick's perspective, noticing and commenting on what he would notice and comment on. If you're truly inhabiting character, then transitions often happen automatically. This passage is also a reminder that dialogue can be a great way to bring us back to a present moment, especially if you've moved away from the scene to provide exposition or a flashback. If you're ever stuck in a scene, I suggest opening a favorite book, and seeing how the writer handles the problem. Flip to a crisis moment in the story or novel, and see how the events move along, how the author transitions out of one tense situation and introduces something else. Emulating that same structure might help you find your own. Here are some other exercises and tactics that come to mind: 1. Braiding Time I found this exercise in Now Write! edited by Sherry Ellis. It was created by fiction writer and teacher Cai Emmons, and I could just kiss her it's so good. Basically, you write a scene of a character alone. The first paragraph, the character is doing something pretty rote and ongoing (washing dishes, etc.); the second paragraph flings the character into the future, without losing sight of the present; the third paragraph flings the character into the past (also with the present as a jumping-off point). The final paragraph uses all three time frames, present, past and future. It's a great exercise for learning how to handle a character's interiority, while also anchoring the character to a present moment. Also, each paragraph forces a transition. If the four-paragraph structure feels constraining, that might be revealing: where do you naturally want to transition? Pay attention to that. 2. The List A student just gave me this idea last night in class. If you're having trouble moving through a scene, consider first jotting down a list of what is physically and sensually in the scene/experience. You know: the smell of popcorn and cigarettes, the sister behind the bar, the widow with her crossword puzzle. By writing this list, you might find the scene's shape, which will make it easier to see the material more fully. From there, imagine the next scene that follows, and write a list for that scene. I'm not yet certain how this will help with transitions, but I've got a hunch it will. Sometimes my fear of transitions has more to do with not knowing my world than anything else. 3. Do the obvious When I'm truly anxious that I'm about to make a fool of myself on the page, it helps to just dive into that foolishness. Go ahead and write "and then..." to connect one action to the next. Write, "All of a sudden..." Write, "Out of nowhere..." Write, "A little while later..." Why not? Once you have your characters on the page, you can go back and see if you need to rewrite, cut, or what. 4. Figure out pacing My last piece of advice is to stop and ask yourself what the time frame of your narrative is. Transitions are most painful to me in novel writing, and I think this is because I am usually covering more time, and it's hard (and scary) to express that passage on the page. If you know that your narrative is the type that can handle, say, "Three weeks went by," then it might be easier for you to figure out how to progress forward. The pace at which my story develops tells me a lot about how I need to start chapters, move from one scene to the next, and so on. For many, this might be a second-draft question, but it could help you to start wondering about it now. What I'm saying is: Transitions might be the problem, or they might just be the symptom of a problem. Okay, that's all I've got for you today. Now I need to figure out how to transition from writing this to working on my novel revision. Any suggestions gladly accepted. Sincerely, The Writing Teacher Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].  

Ask the Writing Teacher: The MFA Debate

Dear Writing Teacher, Hello! I'm an amateur fiction/essay writer who is committing to writing; I have always loved storytelling and writing, and I feel that this would be the best decision for me to live a happy and fulfilling life. I'm unsure, though, of what I should do. I want to return to school, however, a few years ago when I applied to Creative Writing MFA programs I was rejected by each one. I blamed this on my social sciences background, and now am reluctant to apply again. However I don't know how else I would proceed as a writer. Any advice you could give me would be wonderful, thank you. Sincerely, Aspiring Author   Ah yes, ye olden MFA debate! It's no surprise that the first question I received as The Millions (self-proclaimed) Resident Writing Teacher should be about this topic; we're doomed to argue and question and protest and defend the advanced degree in creative writing until zombies shut us up by eating our brains. (I hear zombie fiction is HOT at Columbia right now, by the way). Best I weigh in, once and for all, and move on. Firstly, Aspiring Author, I am sorry that you were rejected from these MFA programs. Rejection is painful, and difficult, and that pain cannot be discounted. In the past few years, I have witnessed many of my best and most talented students suffer this same rejection. It's unbelievable that these writers, whose voices are original and funny, beautiful and startling, true and sparkling with grit and polish and roar, would be turned away. Foolish, too. What are you smoking, my dear Iowa Writers' Workshop? (Or, what aren't you smoking? Loosen up!) On the other hand, I have said bon voyage to many supremely talented writers who were accepted into MFA programs. It's hard to know who will get in, and who won't; since I haven't read your work, I have no idea why your fate was what it was. There's a terrific conversation between Curtis Sittenfeld and Iowa Writers' Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang about this very process; in it, Chang talks about how they have to turn away applicants who are good enough to get in. I am sure that's the case at programs across the country. It's an educational and sobering read, and it also inspires compassion for these people who must wade through billions of applications every year. I can say, without a doubt, that your social science background had no bearing on your rejection, unless you totally bombed it GPA-wise, which (I've heard) can make it difficult for some public universities to accept you because of graduate college standards and so forth (credit wendy at MFA programs look at the writing sample first and foremost; what you studied as an undergrad usually only matters (again, so I've heard) when they're figuring out teaching fellowships and the like. But let's think about this. It's easier to blame your social science background rather than face the upsetting and wrenching thought that these programs rejected your writing. That's what hurts, that's what wounds, right? Ugh, I know that feeling too well myself. Here's a fact though: the life of a writer isn't just about producing work, it's about showing that work to others: agents, editors, and most importantly, readers. It's about hearing NO again and again and again, and still turning on the computer, opening the journal, and getting back to work. If you decide not to apply to MFA programs, it can't be because you fear getting rejected. (Just think: the setbacks you encounter on your way to being a published author only make your biopic that much more Oscar-worthy.) Now that some time has passed, I suggest you review your application and see it objectively. What was good about the work you submitted? What wasn't? Have you improved in the past few years? I assume, if you've continued writing, that you have. Look at your work critically (and I don't mean meanly, but with an eye for critique). How can your writing be better, so that no one dare reject its brilliance? If you want to go to graduate school to study writing, then you already know what to do: work like hell on your application manuscript, and then send it off to the schools you want to go to. It can't hurt to write and revise and revise and revise. Even if you get rejected again, the hard work will have made you a stronger writer. And just, stronger. Now, the other question is, do you have to get an MFA? Of course not. For me, getting an MFA was a good decision. I loved having those two years to read and write, and to think deeply about craft. I was happy to get the teaching experience because I have always wanted to teach, and I met fellow writers with whom I still exchange work with today. It was a good thing for me. I also didn't pay to go, and that is important. My main advice to you, should you decide to get an MFA: Don't spend money (or, not a lot) to get it. Get funded. Anyone who makes the argument that MFA students are rich, or going deeply into debt to talk about short stories, don't know anything about how these programs work. I'm sick of people (cough, cough, Elif Batuman, cough) talking shit about MFAs, people who love to compare whatever dead author they're drooling over these days -- you know, someone like Stendhal -- to the latest batch of contemporary novelists. Enough about how school poisons genius, about how the workshop makes robots of us all! Enough with the ignorant blanket statements! Some writers with MFAs are great, and some aren't; the same can be said for writers without MFAs. It's also odd, I think, to blame (or credit!) someone's writing to a 2- or 3-year program, which the writer might have graduated from years ago. Life is weird and complicated, and schools and teachers can only influence a writer's artistic identity so much. In this year's Tournament of Books (my favorite "sporting event" of the year), match commentators Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner bring some levelheaded sense to the MFA debate. Here, Warner says, The notion that somehow the study of creative writing is producing some kind of homogenized product doesn’t stand up against even the briefest scrutiny. Ann Patchett (Iowa) writes good, old-fashioned realism. Tea Obreht (Cornell) works an amalgam of realism and fantasy. Donald Ray Pollock (Ohio State) mines the territory of literary pulp. That said, like any groups where people gather and share ideas and inputs, a set of values is likely to arise and be shared by many members of that group. Often, these values are already in place prior to the person joining the group, and they have sought out this group because they see like-minded individuals already there. And then Guilfoile says: In an extremely informal survey of the stuff that I read, MFA graduates produce work that I like/dislike at exactly the same rate as everyone else. And while having an MFA no doubt has boosted your career as a teacher, I think you will testify that it is no guaranteed short track to getting published. Amen, brother! An MFA program might help your career, but it more than likely won't. Just last week a student said to me, "I hear that if you go to Iowa, and someone there likes your work, they just make a call, and voilà, a star is born." (Okay, he didn't say it like that, but he did use the phrase "make a call.") Man, I wish it worked like that! It didn't for me, and no MFA applicant or student should assume it will for them. Here's what an MFA will do: it will make you write, and you'll get feedback on that writing. After you graduate, when someone at a party asks what you do, you might have the confidence to say, "I'm a writer." But you might not. In the event that you don't get an MFA (or after you're done getting your MFA), here's what you can do to be a writer: 1. Read, read, read. Read as closely and widely as you can. Figure out how narratives are made, how they make you feel this way or that. Enjoy yourself, and note when and why. When you hate a book and spit in its margins, figure out why it disgusted you so. Reading also includes exploring websites like this one, which discusses literature with passion and insight. Join these communities, share in the conversation. (Clearly, with your email, you've already done this.) 2. Join a writing group and/or enroll in a class. Here's an opportunity to meet fellow writers, to get feedback on your work, to figure out what's bad advice and what is helpful. To get deadlines. To hear about new books. To receive guidance from a teacher. (I teach privately and for UCLA's continuing education program, and I just pretend most of my classes are graduate-level. I think other teachers do the same.) And if you live in a small town with limited options, research online classes. If you don't do this, then at least find a friend with whom to exchange work. 3. Seek out a guru (or two) If you fall in love with the work of a contemporary writer, send them an email (or an old fashioned letter) telling them so; or, if you can, go to a reading of theirs to profess your love in person. You never know, one of these writers just might be eager to start a conversation about their work and yours, about the pleasures and perils of storytelling. I have used my role as staff writer at The Millions to bother at least half a dozen writers I admire, and I think I'm almost brave enough to reach out, next time around, as a regular old fan. 4. Set goals and deadlines for yourself. Decide what you want to work on. You might start out small, like, "I want to finish a draft of this essay in the next six weeks." Later on, you can keep simultaneous goals: "I want to revise my essay in two weeks, and also get halfway done on that short story I've been fantasizing about." Write down these deadlines and plans, and announce your intentions to a kind soul (or two) who can keep you honest. Learn discipline. 5. Send work out. This should be secondary to the writing, but after you've gotten your work in good shape, research the submission process. Duotrope is an excellent resource for short story writers, and blogs like AgentQuery can help you navigate the agent submission process. Don't write with publication in mind (such writing can have a stink to it, I think), but educate yourself, and then put your work out there. Get used to being rejected. 6. Commit In your letter you said, "I'm an amateur fiction/essay writer who is committing to writing." That syntax struck me. Why not, "I'm an amateur fiction/essay writer who is committed to writing." I sense hesitation in that gerund; I see a person on the verge of stepping into the writing life, a person with a foot lifted, but not yet landed. To that I say: Come on, walk on over. We're waiting with open arms. Sincerely, The Writing Teacher Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected]