A Homemade MFA

A Homemade MFA
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"How did you get published? Do you have an MFA?" a reader asked last week. I struggled for the right answer -- how to tell her that, no, I don't have an MFA, but still, I credit being published on other people's teaching.

A number of years ago (about ten to be inexact) I faced reality. If I were to be taken seriously by publishers and agents, I had to work with more intent. For a number of reasons (money, reluctance, working 50+ hours a week, and hyper-impatience with lectures) I didn't return to school. Instead, I dove into self-study and set myself up as a virtual Miss Grundy.

On my bookshelves are over 90 books on writing (not counting those borrowed or given away). Adding those would bring the number up by 35 or more. I read all, highlighted most, and drove the facts into my brain by writing papers (for myself) on them.

This week, as I began the process of outlining my third novel (having just given over number two to the temporary care and custody of my agent and new editor) I thumbed over a few of my favorites and realized, with gratitude, how much these authors gave me. A private MFA (minus the personal critique -- for that I thank Grub Street's Master Novel Workshop, led by the incredible Jenna Blum.)

I cannot be more grateful. Thank you all, generous writers of craft and more.

On Revision: "Cut it by 10 percent. Cut everything by 10 percent . . . Cut phoniness. There are going to be certain passages that you put in simply in the hope of impressing people. It is true of me, and it almost surely true of you. I have maybe never known a writer of whom it is not true. But literary pretension is the curse of the postmodern age. We all have our favorite ways of showing off and they rarely serve us well. When you have identified your own grandiosity, do not be kind." The Modern Library Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, by Stephen Koch

"The only way to improve our ability to see structure is to look harder at it, in our own work and in others'. When you read a book you love, force your mind to see its contours. Concentrate on structure without flinching until it reveals itself. Text is a plastic art, not just a verbal one: it has a shape. To train your mind to see shapes more easily, write them (and sketch them if you like) in a notebook. As with writing down dreams, the more you write, the more you will see." The Artful Edit: On the practice of editing yourself, by Susan Bell

On Craft:

"Significant detail, the active voice, and prose rhythm are techniques for achieving the sensuous in fiction, means of helping the reader "sink into the dream" of the story, in John Gardner's phrase. Yet no technique is of much use if the reader's eye is wrenched back to the surface by misspellings or grammatical errors, for once the reader has been startled out of the story's "vivid and continuous dream," the reader may not return." Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway

"What is the throughline? Throughline is a term borrowed from films. It means the main plotline of your story, the one that answers the question, 'what happened to the protagonist?' Many, many things may happen to her--as well as to everybody else in the book--but the primary events of the most significant action is the thoroughline. It's what keeps your reader reading." Beginnings, Middles and Ends, by Nancy Kress

"Imagine you're at a play. It's the middle of the first act: you're really getting involved in the drama they're acting out. Suddenly the playwright runs out on the stage and yells, 'Do you see what's happening here? Do you see how her coldness is behind his infidelity? Have you noticed the way his womanizing has undermined her confidence? Do you get it?' . . . This is exactly what happens when you explain your dialogue to your readers." Self -Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne & Dave King.

" . . . the quickest and easiest way to reject a manuscript is to look for the overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs." The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman

"Because fiction requires a mighty engine to thrust it ahead--and take the reader along for the ride--backstory if used incorrectly, can stall a story. A novel with too little backstory can be thin and is likely to be confusing. By the same token, a novel with too much backstory can lack suspense . . .. Remember this: The fantasy world of your story will loom larger in your imagination than it will on the page . . ..

"Balance is the notion that every element in the story exists in its proper proportion . . . When you lavish a person, place, or object with descriptive details, readers expect them to have a corresponding importance." Between the Lines: master the subtle elements of fiction writing, by Jessica Page Morrell

On Sustaining: " 'You have to remind yourself that it's very hard work. If you drift along thinking you've got some sort of gift, you get yourself into some real trouble.' Arthur Golden

'I try to remember that a review is one person's opinion--and a cranky person's at that.' Elinor Lipman

'The only reason writers survive rejection is because they love writing so much that they can't bear the idea of giving it up' M.J. Rose." The Resilient Writer, edited by Catherine Wald

"Over the years, I have calculated that feedback on any given piece of writing always falls into one of three categories, and breaks down into the following percentages: 14 percent of feedback is dead-on; 18 percent is from another planet; and 68 percent falls somewhere in-between." Toxic Feedback, by Joni B. Cole

On Tension: "Inner censors interfere with effective revision in a number of ways. For instance, most fiction writers act like protective parents towards their characters, especially the hero and his or her friends. Writers are too nice. You not only don't have to treat your characters nicely, in revision you should look for ways to make the obstacles bigger, the complications seemingly endless, and their suffering worse. Avoid the temptation to rescue your characters." Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, by Elizabeth Lyon

On Sex: "Sex is not an ATM withdrawal. Narrate from inside your characters' bodies and minds, not from a camera set up to record the transaction." The Joy of Writing Sex, by Elizabeth Benedict.

On Public Reading: "Few writers are truly gifted at giving readings, and most have panic attacks before doing an interview, whether for radio, print, or television. And nowadays an author who isn't deemed 'promotable' can be a liability . . . It's important to plan your readings and selections before you speak in public. Long descriptive passage usually put people to sleep, as does staring down at your book for twenty minutes and reading either too fast or in a monotone . . . provide some meaningful stories. If an audience has come out to see you, give them something they won't find in the book." The Forest for the Trees, by Betsy Lerner

On Humiliation: "The lowest moment in my literary career was when I found myself bidding for a middle-aged oil magnate in a mock slave auction at a dinner in Dallas. I was bidding for the sake of Bloomsbury and for the honor of England, but I think the compounds the shame." Margret Drabble, Mortification: Writer's Stories of their Public Shame, edited by Robin Robertson

On Environment: "In truth, I've found that any day's routine interruptions and distractions don't much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster's shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters." On Writing, by Stephen King

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