When one line drops from the sky

words, pastries and other fancies

Tag: Literary Fiction

Perspective: Why “to MFA or not MFA?” is the dumbest question I have ever heard

If I was given a nickel every time I mentioned I had an MFA in writing and someone told me in not so many words that it was not worth money, I would have paid my student loans off years ago.

First, I would never consider telling someone their dreams were worthless. Second, the debate is so tiresome. I understand people don’t want to “waste time” or “waste money” or “make a major wrong life step.” Still, to think that hard about it means those people who say mean-spirited stuff like “it’s not worth it”  have missed the point altogether.

We hear the sentiment “If you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life” all the time, but when someone actually adheres to that as a life mission statement, we tell them it’s a mistake. It’s not worth it. Perhaps those who say that need to look within themselves a little deeper.

I didn’t make the decision to get an MFA lightly. I wanted a new direction, an authentic direction, not a direction someone else felt was good for me. I wanted to do something that moved me. I had dreamed of focusing on my writing in that way for a long time, but had been afraid for one reason or another. One day, I heard one of those Story Corps interviews on NPR. In this particular interaction, a husband was interviewing his wife. She had stage IV cancer of some type. I don’t remember now what type. He talked of her strength and how she had not let her cancer stop her from following her life dream of getting a Master of Fine Arts degree in visual arts. That story stuck with me. After hearing that story, I wondered why I was waiting any longer to follow my heart and do what I wanted. I dreamed of teaching and writing and being home more for my children. I dreamed of being in a wonderful community of writers and making lasting friendships. Mostly, I dreamed of doing something I was so passionate about that I would literally tell people who thought I was crazy to bag it.

Some did think I was crazy, but I had had a lifetime of being sane, of being the good girl and doing what good girls do. Good girls are practical. Good girls do what they are told. Good girls do something like major in something that everyone around them thinks will be good for them, even if everyone around them has no idea who that good girl really is. So, I embraced crazy. I embraced the idea that I’d read in Anne Lamott‘s book Traveling Mercies that you have to leap and the net will find you.

I lept. I went for it. I didn’t think about the stupid debate. I just knew that I would make the darned thing work for me because I wanted to do it. I learned that rather than fear that the net won’t be there, know that the net is always really there. I wanted to dive into the study of something I loved. I was tested in many ways. My first attempt at getting into schools failed, but I tried again and got accepted to  two schools. That, of course, was not the most difficult test. Ironically, I was diagnosed with cancer in the midst of grad school. In the midst of working full-time, raising two children, and attending grad school, to be exact. I didn’t let it stop me. I finished. I did it. I wouldn’t change it or say it wasn’t worth it. I am doing what I love. I am writing. I am teaching. Do I still have loans? Yes. I’d have them if I did something others thought would be more “worth it.”

I posted a status on my Facebook page that says how I feel about this topic best. I posted it because I heard, yet again, someone who does not have an MFA tell me how worthless or useless it is to get one. I am proud of my MFA. I worked hard for it. I knew going into it that it was not the end all, be all to my writing career, but there is no end all, be all. There are only choices we make in the moment that help us see that this moment is all we have. We have to keep writing. We have to keep taking the path we know deep within is right for us.

Here is my Facebook status posted 3/2/13:

I got a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing because I followed my heart. I listened to the creative Crissy within. I got a bachelor of science degree in sports medicine because I was too young and naive to think for myself. In essence, I did what everyone thought I “should” do. I love words. I love inspiring others to discover they might love words as well. Nothing makes my life resonate more than spending a day working through even a single line of my novel. I have not taped an ankle in more than 20 years and I don’t miss it. I was never able to get a halfway decent job until I started writing. It baffles me how often I hear people tell me in not so many words how my writing degree is some how worthless. Not one person ever told me going into sports medicine wouldn’t be worth it. Perspective:/

The Literary Fiction Query/Pitch

The bag I got from the Midwest Writers Workshop.

I’m tired. I’m tired because I spent the last three days at the Midwest Writer’s Workshop, an intensive conference for writers held at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I don’t want to nap before I offer this little post, mostly because when I started on my query journey I found a lot of information on writing queries, but the queries were always focused mystery, or YA paranormal, or romance, or sci fi or other genres. That’s all fine and good, but I don’t write any of that. I don’t want to write any of that. It’s not that I think I am better than that in any way. I don’t think that at all. It’s just that I write what I like reading. I like reading literary fiction. I like great images. I like great characters. This post is about sharing the nuggets of wisdom I found at MWW that really hit at the heart of how to condense the essence of a literary story into a three line pitch. I figure if I was struggling with this there must be other.

First, I must say that while I can write a good compelling piece of prose filled with details and images that bring a scene to life. Give me a cover letter or a query and I’m lost. Suddenly all the faculties that allow me to bring you into fictional scene and linger there for a while slip out the window and my queries and cover letters sound, well, extremely stiff. I knew all this going into my pitch. I also knew that while it was easier to find good examples of how to whittle adventure novels or mysteries or other genre novels into little pitches that popped, I was having a difficult time finding examples or explanations of how to wrangle multiple themes, plots, character quirks into three lines without losing the essence of the story and the voice. Honestly, my queries sounded more like “and then this happens and then this happens and then this happens” kinds of things. My voice was nonexistent in my pitches and queries.

From minute one of the Part II of the conference it seemed the focus was on what makes a good pitch. I absorbed so much information, it’s way too much to try put in this little post. I’ll probably write more on it in the weeks to come, but for now I thought I’d relay the information I received from one of the agents, not the one I pitched. Still, she accepts literary fiction and had a lot of good information to offer on breaking into literary fiction during a brief buttonhole session I attended.

I sat at the table with other attendees, most who I gathered did not write literary fiction because of the questions they asked, the first being, “What is literary fiction?” It was good to hear her define it. She said it was fiction that was more about character development than plot. It is has more layers, more subplots and themes that run through the narrative. I did know that. Of course I know that. I write that. Still, it was valuable to hear from an agent’s perspective. It also opened the door for me to ask the burning question, “So then, when one writes literary fiction with all these layers and subplots and such, how does one contain that in a short query or pitch without losing the essence of the story?”

The agent advised focusing on the key characters and said that if she really is compelled by a character she will want to read more.

I took that piece of advice and all the little tidbits of information I gathered from workshops, panels and practicing my pitch with peers and somehow, after 20 or so revisions, got to where I could find the essence of my main character and her struggles and the story. Essential I focused on what she wants, what’s standing in her way, what is the catalyst that makes her push through what’s standing in her way, and what she finds when she pushes through. That is essentially the whittled down version of what Writer’s Digest editor Chuck Sambuchino offered in his conference opening remarks on how to craft a good pitch.

It all worked. I came away with a successful pitch after reworking early drafts that I knew were duds. I could feel it inside me. I could feel it in the blank stares of some of my peers who I shared the earlier pitches with, but I knew I hit the sweet spot with the final version. I knew I captured the essence of my story and the essence of my voice. That was the key. Now, I have to get back to work. I have a manuscript to send off.

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