Self-Editing Trick

July 17, 2015 at 10:09 pm (Uncategorized)

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Here’s a little trick to help you edit your work. Imagine that you’re submitting your work for critique or publication. This can be to a book doctor, small press or agent. Now close your eyes and imagine getting negative feedback or rejection. Picture this in as much detail as you can. Now, open your eyes and write down everything they say.

This is actually your writer’s intuition telling you what aspects of your work you find to be the most problematic.

Once you’ve done this, go through your book and copy and paste it into a new document or documents, giving it a different file name. Go through it and try to incorporate as many of these changes as you can. Note I said “as many” and “not all,” as you will undoubtedly encounter scenes where you still feel strongly that nothing should change. You should listen to your intuition about that as well.

When you’ve changed as much as you reasonably think you can without ruining your project, and when your inner critic is more or less quiet, then you’ll know the piece is done.

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Never Say Never

July 17, 2015 at 7:54 pm (Uncategorized)

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Today, I read an article that suggested writers should “never” base characters on themselves or people they know or, for that matter, insert their own personal experiences into their characters’ lives.

Of course, that’s absurd. For one thing, there’s an extent to which you can’t not do it, at least somewhat. When you’re writing, even with a character wholly of your own creation, you’ll naturally draw upon your own experiences, either directly via autobiographical details or indirectly, through people you’ve known. You may not even consciously realize you’re doing it until much later.

Another and bigger problem, though, is that if you choose to go too far outside your wheelhouse, you better be prepared to do research…lots of it. In general, being a bit too self-referential is a much less damnable offense than writing about something of which you have very little idea and winding up with characters that are little more than stereotypes.

Case in point: I was in a workshop with someone that wrote a piece about an aimless millennial and an exotic dancer that he met online. Unfortunately, the author herself was very conservative and most likely hadn’t known any exotic dancers and so the dancer wound up being little more than the most common (and most untrue) stereotype about exotic dancers. Several of the workshop participants, myself included, complained about this.

In my novel, my protagonist has Borderline Personality Disorder. I have never been diagnosed with the disorder, but back in the old Livejournal days, I had a couple of LJ friends with the diagnosis. I’ve also read a number of research studies and books on the subject as well as two memoirs written by BPD sufferers, Loud in the House of Myself and A Concrete Sky. On edit #8, I still find myself taking a careful eye, making sure that the character shows the criteria of the disorder without perpetuating negative stereotypes or making her into little more than a case study. She also is from New Orleans, where I have never lived, and was in her early teens when Hurricane Katrina hit. This has required multiple visits to New Orleans, reading books about what it was like after the storm and so forth. If you want to write a character whose life, situation or personality is very different from your own then you better be prepared to do a lot of research, otherwise you’re wise to stick to something a bit more self-referential.

Finally, it bears noting that sometimes stuff that’s a bit heavy on the autobiography winds up selling. I’m currently reading Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness 0f Lemon Cake and while I don’t know for certain how much of it is based on her own life, quite a bit of it reads like a memoir at times and yet, it’s a bestseller. Connie May Fowler’s How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, while not my cup of tea, draws heavily from the author’s own life as does Ruth Ozeki’s bestseller, A Tale for the Time Being. Whether or not it’s your thing, it’s worth noting that self-referential stuff sells, probably because it’s so much easier for the author to evoke emotions when digging into their own unresolved issues, feelings and experiences. Hell, even in workshops where I’ve been slammed for work that’s too “genre,” I’ve still received high praise for scenes that were taken directly from my own experience (and they’ve used this to push me towards lit-fic-with-a-twinge-of-magical-realism, but that’s another topic). Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that there’s an audience for it.

In conclusion, I’d say take these kinds of “never” statements with about a pound of salt. Check them out and see if other authors do them and how it’s received when they do. If you don’t want to cut that out of your novel and there’s evidence that you could get away with it and still build up a readership, then go for it. At the end of the day, as long your protagonists and antagonists have a nice blend of good and evil in them, you should be fine.

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Finding a Book Editor

July 16, 2015 at 11:28 pm (Uncategorized)

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As The Dark Orchid Express nears its final round of edits, I’ve found myself researching book editors. Ideally, I’d like someone that can provide a solid critique as well as proofreading for anything that I may have missed. I know from my days as a psych major that no matter how careful you are, there’s always something that you’ll miss. It’s just how our brains work. When we’re familiar with the material, we fill in the blanks ourselves and it’s near-impossible to catch everything. Of course, I also know from my experience in creative writing workshops that there’s a layer of subjectivity which is often informed by industry standards. In other words, depending on your genre, what is considered the “right” amount of dialogue, plot development and description may vary wildly. Someone with an MFA from Iowa may be the perfect editor for your coming-of-age tale but will most likely be a poor fit for your sci-fi novel.

So, my first step was to send out some initial inquiries to prospective editing services to make sure that they actually have someone with experience in my genre. Mainly, I was interested in someone that has done speculative fiction but would settle for a general fantasy editor. I received a response from Scribendi this morning. They replied, informing me that they have editors in every specialty, but that they couldn’t possibly know all of the specialties. They assured me that their editors “typically have multiple degrees, 15 years of professional experience and are published in his or her chosen specialization.” They then recommended “Editor EM531.”

This automatically set off an alarm. It seems odd to me that they wouldn’t know their own editors’ specializations, as this is something that would be cited on a resume. Certainly, an editor with fifteen years experience would have accumulated areas of expertise. Furthermore, if they don’t have that information, how can they possibly assign me an editor appropriate to my manuscript? I additionally was concerned by paying approximately $2500 for an editor who is known only as “Editor EM531.” After all, it’s a standard practice for clients to know the name of the person doing the work. Besides, how can the client verify the company’s claim of extensive experience and multiple degrees if they don’t know who they’re working with?

I wrote them back and explained that the nature of the critique could vary based on the editor’s background and therefore this information was essential. Given the cost of the critique portion of the service (roughly $750 for a 1-2 page analysis) it seemed that knowing the editor had experience in my genre was a small request.  So, I asked that they give me the name of an editor that worked in my genre and if they didn’t have someone directly related, provide the name and genre of their closest match. They responded and informed me that they could not “provide the name and personal details of our employees” and that it was best that I look elsewhere. Note that I did not ask for anything that could be considered personal. I asked for the name and specialty only, which is actually substantially less than what’s listed on the typical employee bio on a company’s website.

Out of curiosity, I did a bit of research on Scribendi online. According to GlassDoor, they do hire new and inexperienced freelancers and it’s seen as a good way for newbies to get their feet wet. Some of the editors complained about the lack of transparency as well and, from the sounds of things, most of the jobs that they picked up involved proofreading ESL students’ essays. According to their own ad for employment, they ask for three years of experience and an undergraduate degree although a graduate degree, while not a requirement, is preferred. So, it does seem like there’s a bit of spin in the list of their credentials. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect fifteen years experience. Three years of experience would be more than sufficient for my purposes, as long as the editor has experience in my area. What’s more disconcerting is the secrecy combined with spin.

I’m still waiting to hear back from one of the other services that I contacted. I also have some other avenues that I’m considering looking into, such as posting the job on a freelance site or possibly taking out an ad in P&W. However, I wanted to pass on what I found for other authors going the self-publishing route. In general, I find the following to be good guidelines to bear in mind:

1. Responsiveness: Remember that people tend to be more responsive when trying to make a sale. If they don’t respond promptly (within 48-72 hours) to an inquiry, what reason do you have to expect they’d do so when working on your book?

2. Experience in your genre: not to beat a dead horse, but this really is important. I remember workshopping the first chapter of another project, a fast-paced “new weird” style story, and getting steered towards making it a piece of literary fiction with only the most subtle sprinklings of magical realism. Often, people in one genre don’t realize they have certain biases. If you’re going to spend the money on any kind of developmental editing, you need to know that the person is familiar with your audience.

3. An editor bio: any decent editing service should be able to provide you with a bio that lists the editor’s name, where she got her degree and what sort of prior experience she brings to the table. This doesn’t mean you’re judging the person on the degree but it does help verify that the person has it. You’re spending a lot of money–you are absolutely within your rights to make sure that a service’s editors have what the salesperson claims that they have.

4. Send multiple inquiries. Don’t ever go with the first person or company that answers you. Your book is a big deal and you have to make sure that you’re hiring the best person for the job.

5. Decent pay for their editors: you don’t want (as some of the people on Glassdoor mention) an editor that is having to scrounge and scrape by, getting up in the middle of the night to pick up jobs, just because the service doesn’t pay their editors properly. Remember, if they aren’t making good money on each job that means they don’t have the time to dedicate to your manuscript. They’re going to have to get through it as quickly as possible and move on to the next job in the queue. This isn’t their fault, it’s their employer’s fault, but it does impact the quality of work.

6. If you can, try to get references or scrubbed samples. Don’t accept “confidentiality” as a reason to not provide these things. It’s a standard practice in the business world to provide sample work that has enough identifying details scrubbed out to give potential clients a sense of what they do. It’s also standard to offer incentives for extremely satisfied clients that agree to serve as a reference.

Like most things, these aren’t hard and fast rules and no service will be perfect. Consider each of the above points a red flag. If a service violates one of the guidelines but otherwise seems good, go for it, but beware of anyone that violates most or all of the above.

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Unveiling

May 22, 2015 at 2:44 am (Uncategorized)

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Just a couple of admin issues here. One is that I’ve temporarily suspended comments. I’ll probably enable them once I have more posts and the blog starts coming up in search engines but since it’s in its early stages, it’s mostly just spammers leaving comments.

The other issue is that, while I still anticipate the occasional bit of critical commentary, as The Dark Orchid Express gets ready for another round of queries, I’ve decided to start publishing little nuggets for my future fans. These will be things like character sketches, micro-fiction detailing character backstories not in the novel and world-building that, while not in the first novel, will be important in later books in the series.

To start with, I’m giving you a taste from my query-in-progress:

Katy is dead. Of course, she doesn’t know this. She doesn’t know much, because when she arrives at a mental institution on a snowy winter day in what she believes to be the Chicago suburbs, her memory is impaired; she remembers taking pills with vodka and tang but the rest is a blur. A psychology major with Borderline Personality Disorder, she tries to make sense of her fragmented past while figuring out where she is. With a never-ending library, a church full of fun house mirrors, a topless club that traps its dancers for eternity and a university with professors stuck in never-ending mazes, it becomes increasingly clear to Katy that she is no longer in Chicago. As she navigates the mental institution’s byzantine rules, contends with well-intentioned but useless therapists and juggles often-tumultuous relationships with her fellow patients, Katy is unaware that her soul is the prize in a high stakes wager between a demonic chess player and the mental institution’s silent owner. With world-building reminiscent Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen and archetypal symbolism not unlike Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, this 105,000-word work of speculative fiction presents a tale of mental illness for fans of the weird and the strange.

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Should You Get an MFA in Creative Writing? That Depends On What You Want To Do With It

March 31, 2015 at 11:05 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

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After I received my MA in Philosophy, I returned to my love of creative writing. In that time I wrote one manuscript, then another and another. The next step was to enroll in a Creative Writing MFA program, right?  So, I found my best writing samples, procured a few LoRs and applied to nine programs.  I got into seven programs: five low residency programs and two full residency programs. After taking financials into account, I enrolled in Roosevelt University’s MFA program.

That was a mistake.

I’ll spare the details. I reference it in some of the workshop experiences mentioned in this blog and I’d say my experience paralleled what a lot of the MFA detractors have described. Suffice to say, I went out in a fiery blaze after a month. Out of roughly 14 incoming students, I was the third one to withdraw from the program, although to be fair I don’t know their reasons for leaving and I know that at least part of my problem was culture shock from my many years studying philosophy.

Still, I didn’t want to give up on the MFA idea entirely. I regretted not doing the low-residency thing. After all, less time in workshops, more autonomy, a greater orientation towards the novel and students my own age would make it better, right? So, I called one of the programs that accepted me and they agreed to let me enroll for Summer 2015. Meanwhile, I kept writing, kept editing, and started sending out queries for my one polished manuscript.

Now that summer is approaching, with the first payment for said program due in just a couple of months, I find myself revisiting this issue. Should I go through with it? Will it be better? Will it be worth it? Couldn’t all that cash be put to better use by traveling overseas to research my novel? Doing a google search really just results in a frustrating amount of contradictory information and a lot of fluffy talk about being “in a community of writers” and “having space to write.” (I already have plenty of space to write, my own study in fact, and as far as community, well, let’s just say, I’m grateful that I escaped my prior MFA experience without some sort of Jim Jones scenario.) Seeking more reliable information, I decided to look at the New York Times Bestsellers List and research the authors who might, by the standard metrics, be considered “successful.”

I looked at the authors’ webpages as well as Wikipedia and any other available information. If no MFA was either listed or implied, I wrote down “none.” If an advanced degree was mentioned, I listed that. I also made a note of who had an MFA. Of the 16 bestsellers and the four that fell under the “also selling” category, I could only find evidence of an MFA for 25% of the authors. Of the remaining 75%, 15% had a degree in Literature (English or Comparative) and another 15% had an advanced degree in another discipline, such as Law or Anthropology.

The reason why MFA-holders may make up such a small percentage of the authors on the bestsellers list is probably due to a few factors. One is that the aesthetic (and there is a very recognizable “MFA style”) may simply not appeal to a large enough cross-section of people to be widely read. Also, the intensity of criticism received, as well as the manner in which it is delivered, may create the kind of perfectionism that, rather than pushing one to do his or her best, actually results in increased procrastination. In the workshops I participated in, I noticed that many of my classmates (and in one case, one of the professors) had a flair for the dramatic but in a way that wasn’t particularly actionable or useful to the writer. (Here, I’m not just speaking of when my own work was critiqued, but in general.) After I left, I bought a bunch of books on craft to figure out just what people were talking about. Only then did it become useful. For a lot of students, though, I think it results in a sort of operant conditioning, a tendency to do more of what gets praised and less of what gets criticized in a way that results in decreased risk-taking and increased dependence on feedback from others. This is why you hear about people that, after their MFA, fine tune a book for a decade before even attempting to get it published.

Another reason for the low representation among MFA-holders is that, quite simply, the content encouraged in MFA programs is not what’s selling. Calculating genre, more than half of the books on the bestsellers list are some sort of mystery/crime fiction/political thriller. Historical fiction was also heavily represented as well as, to a slightly lesser extent, family issues. (Also, Historical Fiction occasionally overlapped with either mystery/political fiction or family issues.) A lot of what gets encouraged in MFA programs doesn’t fall into this category. Coming of age stories are big, along with “two people coming to terms with stuff while riding a train” sort of stories. Depending on where you go, you might get a bit of focus on “deconstructing plot” as well. Mystery or historical fiction hold an odd place in MFA programs with some hiring faculty who write in that genre and other programs discouraging it. (The latter I encountered in a fiction class I took as an undergrad.)

I think the problem is that MFA programs and major publishers are working at cross-purposes. Major publishers want stuff that will sell and, if you ever want to stop working as a barista (or a lawyer, for that matter) and write full time, you need your stuff to sell. MFA programs, though, are breeding you for academia. And creative writing in academia is all about writing literary fiction, not mystery or speculative fiction or fantasy or any other genre. The idea is that you’re going to make your living as a professor of writing, so if you only ever publish a few books through a small press, it’s not the end of the world. (My fiction professor at RU wrote one book several years before and was planning on taking sabbatical the next semester so he could get the second book written.) In short, MFA programs groom you to be a professor, not an author.

Where it gets muddied, I think, is that a lot of students entering an MFA program don’t realize this. There are very, very few tenure track creative writing positions and, as most graduates won’t land these jobs, the degree is hyped as a place to “find your voice” “be in a community of writers” even (yes) “give yourself permission to write.” But really, unless you have serious academic aspirations and/or it’s your life dream to have your short stories published in the New Yorker, you can probably save your money. Go to graduate school for Philosophy or History or English Lit, travel overseas, or just read a lot and hang out in coffeehouses. Otherwise, an MFA may take you further away from your goals, not closer to them.

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Literary Fiction and Intellectualism

March 13, 2015 at 10:06 pm (Uncategorized)

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When one researches the precise definition of literary fiction, often you see it defined, especially among non-academics, as work that is obscure and intellectual, something more abstract and requiring a certain amount of effort.

As someone with a not insignificant background in philosophy, who has also read David Foster Wallace, David Markson and other authors who incorporate copious amounts of intellectual messages into their work, I have a somewhat different perspective. Wittgenstein’s Mistress, although initially quite engaging, grated on me after awhile for a whole different reason. The rapid shifting references from the protagonist, which in the first 30 pages seemed like candy to an ex-academic like myself, by page 100 seemed not unlike the first year graduate student that drops every reference he can without really digging into it in an effort to show everyone how much he truly belongs in the academy. It sounds smart, even intimidating, to the person that isn’t already acquainted with the references. For example, when the narrator remembers a quote and tries to recall if it was said by Heidegger or Kierkegaard, being familiar with both, I understand what’s going on. It’s widely known among Heideggerians that the description of Angst in Being and Time is pretty much ripping off Kierkegaard in a secularized way. Before we can really see this fleshed out with the character, it’s off to the next reference. If you already know it, it’s too surface and obvious but if you don’t, it’s too obscure.

I’ve had the same problem with David Foster Wallace. I once read a fairly lengthy interview with him in which he hopped from philosopher to philosopher. One thing about studying philosophy is that it makes you a careful reader. You really read line by line, look for the argument being presented and ask if it makes sense to you. So, when someone raises the issue of whether Heidegger or Wittgenstein is the true destroyer of language and then jumps onto a different point entirely, as if their audience will know exactly what they mean and it requires no elaboration, it comes across more pseudo-intellectual than intellectual to me.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on them. Still, it seems that it’s this sort of writing that leads to the “faking it” phenomenon. I once met a fellow writer in my city that, no matter what book you referenced, would nod knowingly as if it were her favorite author. The thing is, I read a lot about a lot of different things. I read everything from Denis Johnson to Plato to obscure texts on German law to books on the social psychology of language. I’m just really curious that way. After awhile, it became apparent that she was simply pretending to know every author I mentioned. I think that because authors like Markson and DFW are often cited as exemplars of literary fiction, it encourages this sort of phenomenon. You get what I like to call “The New Yorker Effect,” where people know that it’s something literary people are supposed to like and therefore accept or reject it purely on the basis.

That’s where, I think, it’s important to distinguish between literature and literary fiction. When we talk about literary fiction, we’re really speaking of something more contemporary. It’s the sort of thing that’s taught and published by academics, that’s published by literary journals and so forth. It’s a classification but it contains the underlying implication that it is somehow on a par with, say, Dante or Shakespeare or Dostoevsky. Still, for many of the contemporary authors you find shelved in the literary fiction section of your local independent bookstore, that remains to be seen.

There is also a sharp distinction to be made between, say, the existential concepts we find embedded in Kafka or Camus’ work and the name (and even concept) dropping in Wittgenstein’s Mistress. The difference is that in a work like The Trial, to the thoughtful reader, it will become apparent. Indeed, the argument can be made that existential literature is another way of doing philosophy. (And philosophy and literature engage with one another historically. Hegel’s magnum opus, Phenomenology of Spirit, was in many ways a nod to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.) With Wittgenstein’s Mistress, we’re seeing a certain deconstruction of plot going on. Really, we’re peeking into the isolated inner world of a very well educated, very detached individual and in that sense, the “plot” isn’t just slow, it’s a depiction of state of mind, which I suppose is my gripe about all the concept-dropping. Perhaps it’s intended to be aphoristic, but it lacks the punch of aphorisms, or the multiple levels of meaning one finds in them, where one can have a surface understanding but the more studious reader can glean a deeper meaning. At the same time, it isn’t all that faithful to the thinking of the mad logician archetype, who takes us much deeper into her occasionally idiosyncratic interpretation of the ideas she is consumed by.

This, I think, is where the accusations of deliberate obscurity and absence of plot come in. In a work like that, and there’s a decent amount of literary fiction out there that does this, there’s a large extent to which the medium is the message.  There’s nothing wrong with that, there’s nothing wrong with conveying a state of mind and deviating from traditional plot in order to do it in a new way that will jar the reader out of his or her complacency. However, writers have to be careful to not run afoul of the same problems that you find in conceptual art, where it’s not clear if the artist is being wildly creative or trying to cover up their own creative stagnation by slapping on a theme that may or may not really be inherent in the piece itself. For this reason, it’s crucial to connect the disparate references and allusions to the over-arching concept in a piece. Danto’s art world public be damned, some of us need a reason besides literary reputation to get behind a work.

 

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Speculative Fiction

March 11, 2015 at 11:29 pm (Uncategorized)

I just stumbled across this explanation of speculative fiction. It’s the most clearly written, comprehensive definition that I’ve found to date. Since it also happens to be what I write, I figured that I would pass it on.

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Ryan Boudinot, MFA Programs and Pedagogical Responsibility

March 8, 2015 at 4:33 am (Uncategorized)

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I wasn’t going to write about Ryan Boudinot. I really wasn’t. I was a bit late to the party. No doubt owing to my rather small Facebook friends list, I didn’t find out about the article until yesterday. When I read it, it immediately struck me as clickbait. Still, when I learned that it created tremendous waves on the internet, including a former colleague demanding he apologize to his former students, I couldn’t resist chiming in.

First of all, there’s one thing that needs to be made clear. Boudinot taught at Goddard, which means he was teaching a low-residency program, not a traditional one. I’ve seen a lot of the debate centering around the workshop format and teaching 24 year olds. However, at Goddard, this would have been a small part of his experience. The average age of his students would have been around 42. He would have worked one on one with his students remotely, generally only seeing them at residencies, with workshops being minimal. (Most low-residency programs only have workshops during the 10 day residency, although some programs have incorporated an online workshop component.) So, issues of youth or the value of the workshop aren’t really relevant here.

However, the format must be considered when evaluating his criticism. First of all, it means that when he says “But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late” that he’s addressing the person who, in midlife, decides they want to be a writer and enters an MFA program. Some of these students may have enjoyed writing earlier in life whereas others may have only taken a creative writing course at a continuing education center six months before applying to grad school. Low-residency programs are attractive to people that want to get an MFA without having to quit their day jobs, and these jobs can range from journalist to lawyer.

But is it really too late? It seems he’s playing free and loose with neuroscience when he says “You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.” In fact, it remains very much an open question as to whether younger really is better where writing is concerned . Although I started writing when I was nine years old, and although it has always been a passion of mine, when I finally went to college I decided to major not in English but Psychology and Philosophy and it only helped my writing. Writing is, at bottom, a highly syncretic pursuit. Without life experience and a significant knowledge base, you’re stuck with coming-of-age tales and little else. There’s an argument to be made for only seriously approaching writing once you really have something to say.

If that was the crux of Boudinot’s complaint, though, it might not be so bad. What’s really disconcerting, however, is not that he held such a pessimistic attitude towards the adult students he was mentoring. Rather, what really struck me was just how much of it masked weak pedagogy. At the beginning of his article when he says, “The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare” I can’t help but wonder about his own acumen in giving feedback. Giving feedback that is actionable and pushes the student to try harder without deflating them is extremely hard to do, and I think, is probably the most challenging thing for any teacher to learn. It’s easy to write it off as “some have talent and some don’t” but at the end of the day, it’s a bit of a cheat. If you spent eight years teaching and can’t point to students who showed significant improvement thanks to your pedagogy, then it isn’t just the students who are at fault.

Equally unsettling is his claim, “Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening.” While it’s true the industry is changing, if you’re teaching Creative Writing at the graduate level and you’re publishing (and if you’re teaching in an MFA program you really should be) then there’s no excuse for not knowing what’s going on in the industry and relaying that to your students. Their success is your success, whether you realize it or not. Furthermore, while the changes may be rapid, there’s no shortage of information out there. Arguably, it’s much easier to get the inside scoop on the industry now than ever before. Authors with small presses blog. Agents blog. Editors blog. If you’re going to be in the position of instructing graduate students, keeping up with what’s going on in your own profession really ought to be a top priority and you really ought to be able to relay that information to your students. In the very least, you should know in which situations a student ought to seek an agent, when a small press might be more appropriate and what the pros and cons of self-publishing are.

In conclusion, I think we can all agree (including, I’d imagine, Boudinot) that it’s probably a good thing he isn’t teaching anymore. I’m not sure that writers, especially in MFA programs, need any more discouragement. If anything comes out of this controversy, I hope it’s more than just making Boudinot’s name more readily recognizable. I hope that it promotes a discussion of pedagogy above and beyond the “MFA: Pros and Cons” variety. I hope it leads to a discussion of what it really means to mentor students, what it means to be a good Creative Writing instructor and what sort of responsibilities a professor has to his or her graduate students.

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On Motive

March 7, 2015 at 12:10 am (Uncategorized)

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I wanted to say something about the motivation to write as well as about the motivation to publish.

In my last post, I addressed the distinction between wanting to publish versus wanting to be read. In it, I alluded to external validation and my belief that, while not a primary motivation, this is a very common one and one which I believe the literary world promotes.

Today, I’d like to take that a step further. It’s true, it promotes it, but indirectly. I remember reading an article in Poets and Writers awhile back, where the author, who had taught MFA students, was appalled by the level of scathing criticism his students had towards a well-respected an anthology. An anthology, he was convinced, that many of his students would never publish in. He remarked that students in workshops “should be criticizing each other, not other writers.”

Often, I’ve seen this sort of disconnect in the literary world, the one between those that are published and those that aren’t. You see it in MFA programs. You see it in industry magazines. You see it from agents and publishers. At the same time, there also is this stigma in the literary world (at least in MFA programs and in magazines like P&W) around having any motive aside from the pure desire to move others with your writing. It seems a bit naive, if not downright disingenuous, to bestow a higher status upon those that have published and then criticize those who haven’t for wanting what has clearly been presented to them as the criteria for credibility.

I think it’s part of a more over-arching mythos of authenticity that surrounds the literary world. I say mythos because of the associated belief that only those with purity of purpose, only those whose goal is to uplift others by tapping into something universal, can somehow lay claim to being authentic. Anything else–the desire for credibility, for self-expression, for sharing one’s inner world, for understanding, for a career–is deemed as somehow not only vulgar and inappropriate but is tainted to the point where one is better off leaving the profession than pursuing it for the wrong reasons.

Except it’s a lie, a myth.

When you say things like “I want to write something universal, something that will move other people” really dig deep into your psyche to tease out the answer to one simple question: why? Is it because you want to help people, inspire them? Great, so why do you want to do that? Nor does the “writing because you must” response get you out of it, because again, why must you? What is underneath that driving urge to create? If you dig far enough, you’ll find something. Maybe there’s a lot of gunk from the past that needs resolving. Maybe you have a deep-seated feeling of alienation and you want to connect with readers who may feel the same way. Maybe writing is like a puzzle to you, a way to work through concepts in a manner that’s less systematic than philosophy or the sciences. Maybe, like the INTJ author from this MBTI forum, you simply enjoy it and aren’t cut out for the corporate world. The fact is, no one does anything in life with a completely pure motive. There are always some sort of secondary benefits. Whether it’s money, fulfillment, intellectual stimulation,  putting a part of yourself out in the world or simply feeling valued and useful, we all have them and, as long as you don’t lose perspective, there’s nothing wrong with that. To claim otherwise is pure pretension.

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Meaningless Statements

March 1, 2015 at 9:08 pm (Uncategorized)

There are two things I’m not a fan of: meaningless statements and beating around the bush. When I was an undergrad, I had a psych professor who gave the following advice to prospective grad school applicants: “Don’t ever write ‘I want to help people’ on your SOP. As opposed to what? All those people that want to hurt people? It’s a meaningless statement and doesn’t tell us anything.”

In the March/April issue of Poets and Writers, there’s an interview with agent Jennifer Joel. The magazine, in hyping the article, promised to tell you, among other things, “what writers should really want out of publishing.” Most of the article centered around her experiences as an agent but when asked what she would like writers to know in advance of their query, she states,

Writers need to understand the distinction between wanting to be published and what they really want. Publication is a means to an end. And the end is being read. If you’re looking to get credit, there are easier ways to get credit. But if you feel genuinely that you could make a promise to a reader, and that what you have to say is worth somebody you’ve never met and may have nothing in common with spending ten hours of their time on, that’s the goal.

Unfortunately, this is a meaningless statement. Okay, sure, there are lots of writers that want the validation that comes with publishing, a physical product that, in a results-based society, says that you’ve managed to do something. The literary world, with its often sharp distinctions between published writers and aspiring ones,  is no exception to this. Still, how many writers would be ecstatic to publish a book that never sold a single copy? Obviously when someone says “I want to be published” they mean “I want to be read.”

The problem comes in with the differing definitions of what “I want to be read” means. This is where the beating around the bush comes in. What’s actually being said here is that writers should want to be read by lots of people, i.e. they should want to have mass appeal. They should want to sell a book that will make it on to the bestseller list. For a lot of writers, though, it’s all about wanting to share a certain inner vision. If you get too audience-oriented in your writing, if you let the “what will sell” question dictate too much of the process, there comes a point when you have to ask yourself why you aren’t working as a technical writer or a journalist. Obviously, if you’re pursuing a highly competitive career with little to no financial certainty, it’s because you have something that you want to get out, something operating at a level beyond what’s pragmatic. Certainly, all writers should aspire to the universal, but there is a difference between the universality of a work and the popularity of a work, and at times, they may be very much at odds.

This is what I mean by beating around the bush. There’s a lot of beating around the bush in the lit world, and maybe I notice it more coming from a background in philosophy where the emphasis is on clarity of communication. Still, too much subtlety, too much obfuscation, not only makes the statements appear meaningless (as in the distinction between wanting to be published and wanting to be read) but it makes them actually meaningless. Why? Because in order to decipher them, you have to know what the author is referring to in the first place. If I didn’t already know that agents and publishers often get flustered by being hit with queries for great ideas that “won’t sell” (or, more likely, will be a niche market that won’t produce the numbers that publishing houses require) then I’d probably read such a statement and dismiss it as bloviating. In other words, it only makes sense if I already know this. However, if I have to already know something to understand a given piece of advice, why bother saying it in the first place?

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